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Education Secretary: What makes the German and Dutch technical education systems so successful

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The Education Secretary Damian Hinds recently embarked on a fact finding mission to Germany and the Netherlands as part of his commitment to ensuring every child in this country will have a well-rounded, world-class education - regardless of whether they choose a technical or academic route - so that Britain is fit for the future.

He has written for the DfE Media Blog to round up his thoughts following the visit.

A few weeks ago I embarked on a fascinating five-day fact-finding visit to Germany and the Netherlands. I went to find out more about how these countries approach technical education and skills, and in particular what we can learn from them here in England.

We are in the middle of a root-and-branch transformation of the options available to young people after the age of 16, by creating more high-quality apprenticeships and introducing a new technical qualification, T Levels, from 2020.

Both the German and Dutch education systems are famous for their technical education and I wanted to try and find out what makes them so successful.

There are two things which stood out for me in both countries – the parity of esteem between technical and academic routes, and the deep-rooted involvement of business.

I think that there exist some very outdated views of technical education and the kind of jobs it can lead to, and for decades technical education has not had as much attention as it should. I want people to hold apprenticeships and other vocational options in the same kind of regard they would our world-class universities.

We are making progress thanks to our reforms to apprenticeships, which have made them of much higher quality, but we clearly have some way to go. We are working hand-in-glove with businesses throughout these reforms – after all, training and apprenticeships are already part of their DNA – and it is businesses that need a skilled workforce, so it is only right that they are central to the process, designing content and offering industry placements.

In Europe, I visited a range of organisations, including industry titans like Siemens and Henkel, but also smaller enterprises such as the industrial processor C H Erbslöh. All of these businesses are very successful at what they do but they all have one thing in common: the way they recruit and train young people is a key part of their operations.

One thing that stood out to me was the way children get the opportunity to try out different sectors and industries whilst at school – what the Germans call ‘”Schnupperpraktikum”, which roughly translates to “a sniff placement”. This is a vital part of giving children time out from school to experience what it’s like in the workplace.

While visiting businesses was undoubtedly instructive, the thing that made the biggest impression on me was to see how children in Dutch and German schools, like the one I visited in Dresden, viewed non-academic options after school. They were so enthusiastic – as were their parents. They trusted the quality of the training they would receive and the opportunities it would open up. This was really refreshing and I was intrigued by what was behind it.

When I spoke to a group of parents it became obvious that they trusted technical routes because of the full range of study that comes with it. Their child wouldn’t be limited to just doing “mechatronics”, say, but they would keep studying maths and English alongside different humanities subjects as well.

I suspect part of the stigma around technical education in this country is down to the fact that many people don’t realise how much things have improved in the past few years.

There is always more than one way of doing things. You look at what works elsewhere and then you select parts that are going to work best for you. Both the German and Dutch approaches to technical education are first class, but we can’t assume that we could just copy what they’ve done and expect to get the same result here. There are a number of significant differences in this country, not least in the way that the economy is structured.

And meetings like these also reinforce that there are strengths, too, in our own system that you don’t find in others.

But by the same token I am equally sure that the more we look at other systems, the better chance we have of developing a world-class system of our own. We want to offer our young people the kind of cutting-edge training that will equip them well and make our country competitive in the global market and which will elicit the same kind of pride and excitement I saw everywhere on my trip.

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