Daily Archives: October 2, 2012

Politicians at last seem to be getting serious about the need to address the lamentable failings of vocational education in England – shortcomings that mean up to a third of young people today get little or no benefit from education after the age of 16. The government has started the ball rolling with some mostly sensible plans for reform, and now Ed Miliband has outlined how a Labour government would take things further forward. A lot of the detail has yet to be filled in, but the broad direction looks right.

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Alison Wolf spelt out the challenges in her groundbreaking review of these issues last year. Vocational education in England has been micromanaged from the centre for decades, creating structures that are extraordinarily complex and opaque. Policy priorities are constantly shifting. Not nearly enough attention has been paid to raising standards in literacy and numeracy. There has been too much emphasis on quantity rather than quality – so, for instance, a major difference between English apprenticeships and those elsewhere in Europe is the small proportion that offer qualifications equivalent to A-levels, rather than lower-level GCSEs. The public accounts committee has also expressed concern about the way essentially short training programmes for existing workers are now being classified as apprenticeships.

And policy has failed to recognise fundamental shifts in the labour market, driven in part by changes in regulation and in employers’ assumptions about the skills of school leavers. Even before the impact of the recession, far fewer jobs were becoming available for 16 to 17-year-olds than was the case only 20 years ago.

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In response, the government has committed among other things to raise standards in English and maths for all young people up to the age of 19, to simplify the system radically and to remove incentives to place students on low-level rather than high-achieving courses.

For his part, Mr Miliband’s most eye-catching idea is a new deal for businesses: they would get direct control of a sizeable chunk of public funds in return for driving up the volume of vocational training and quality apprenticeships. This has a number of attractions. It would distribute power away from the centre. It would increase engagement between business and further-education colleges, which is very patchy at present. It would encourage businesses to provide general as well as specific skills, and it would help drive out the brokerage and other middleman activities between the funders and the company that add to costs but not much to value in the present system.

It is not clear exactly how all this would work in practice. But the good news is that the proposals are not too prescriptive.

It would be up to business to decide whether the funding should be channelled through sector skills bodies, local groups of employers or a single company’s supply chain such as Nissan in the north-east. It would also be for businesses to determine what powers they might need to deal with free-riders – rivals that do not provide training themselves but pinch people from companies that do. This flexibility makes sense, because the one thing that would kill this idea stone dead would be a detailed mandate from Whitehall setting out precisely who should do what to whom in this respect.

Mr Miliband’s ideas for a technical baccalaureate are also well worth exploring. As proposed by Andrew Adonis in his stimulating new book on education, this would be for students over 16 who were not following the A-level route: it would include English and maths GCSE, a reputable qualification in an occupational area, and quality work experience. A higher level would be available for those who had already reached the basic GCSE level and were looking for further technical skills.

The writer is chancellor of the University of Warwick, a former director-general of the CBI and a previous FT editor

Now that Mikheil Saakashvili has lost the Georgian parliamentary election, some will pronounce the “Rose” revolution dead and buried – and that would miss the point entirely. The 2003 popular insurrection in the streets of Tbilisi was never simply the replacement of Eduard Shevardnadze with Mr Saakashvili or of a Soviet-era clique with a post-Soviet generation of leaders.

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Instead, the Rose revolution, like all genuine revolutions, was the replacement of a sclerotic political order unresponsive to public demand for change with one that at least begins to reflect the aspirations of the people who triggered and sustained it.

Mr Saakashvili, still just 44, has many faults. His ego is enormous and he sometimes defends democracy with authoritarian tools. His economic reform plans were often badly conceived and erratically implemented, and he built himself a presidential palace fit for a central Asian autocrat. To attract foreign investment and buttress his popular support, he invested considerable sums in expensiveand flash architectural projects in a country plagued with crumbling infrastructure. Attempts to legally exclude leading opposition figures from the ballot raised justifiable concerns and recent video images of torture in Georgian prisons suggested a sinister edge to the country’s supposedly modern attitude towards human rights.

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And despite repeated warnings from friends in Washington, Mr Saakashvili stumbled his country into war in 2008 by needlessly provoking a Russian military that was itching to be provoked.

But Mr Saakashvili was always more than a callow, western-educated political leader with a too-high opinion of his own worth. He was, and is, a democrat. He institutionalised a democratic system that stands in marked contrast to the central Asian autocracies – and to Russia’s Potemkin democracy. Georgia’s economy will grow by about 7.5 per cent this year. State corruption has been drastically reduced. A strengthened constitution will take effect next year and the president conceded defeat when the votes did not come his way.

Mr Saakashvili will remain president until an election is held next year, but now taking political centre stage is the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man worth about half of Georgia’s gross domestic product who made his fortune in Russia. Mr Ivanishvili, who will probably become a forceful and active prime minister, will bring a less contentious, more pragmatic approach to relations with his country’s giant neighbour to the north. That is smart, given Georgia’s small size, lack of natural wealth and its tough neighbourhood. At the same time, he says he wants Georgia to join Nato and plans an early trip to Washington. That is smart, too. As a transit route for Caspian gas making its way to Europe, and as a western-friendly government located strategically between Russia, Turkey, Iran and central Asia, Georgia can expect friendly overtures from east and west.

But make no mistake: Georgia will now enter a contentious moment in its politics. Mr Ivanishvili is a political novice and his Georgian Dream party contains an odd collection of European-minded liberals and hardcore Georgian chauvinists united only by hatred of the other guy and respect for their man’s cash. They won’t always have strong incentives to work together, and Mr Saakashvili and his party, which will continue to wield significant influence in parliament, will work hard to obstruct the new government’s plans.

But take the longer view: a generation ago, newly independent Georgia plunged straight into civil war. When Mr Saakashvili came to power in 2003, the capital city’s great immediate need was a steady supply of electricity. Georgia just held a genuinely contested election and we are about to see a peaceful, if grudging, transfer of political power. Outside the Baltic states and Ukraine, no other former Soviet republic can say as much.

There will be plenty of time for cynicism later. Today we must recognise the triumph of Georgia’s (ongoing) Rose revolution.

The writer is the president of Eurasia Group

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