Skills and hostility to migration

Today saw publication of the results from the 34th British Social Attitudes Survey. Every year, a team of social researchers asks a sample of around 3,000 people about their views on current social issues. You can find the results on the NatCen website:, and I always find them well worth reading.

The 2014 Survey included some revealing questions on people’s attitudes to immigration. We already know from previous research that the most highly educated individuals tend to be the most welcoming towards immigrants. Because the Survey belongs to an international consortium of similar studies, we can compare this pattern across countries. The results show that when analysed by level of education, attitudes in Britain are more polarised than in other European countries.

I’d be interested to know why this is so. My guess is that it might have something to do with our polarised education system, which in turn creates considerable social and economic distance between people from different socio-economic classes. It may also have to do with the strength of the low skills economy here, as well as the strong cultural stigma attached to low skills in Britain. These are (informed) guesses, and it’d be great to see some serious research on the issue.

The 2014 Survey also allowed for comparison of attitudes over time. For me, the most interesting finding here concerns the decline of race/ethnicity and religion as the basis for accepting immigrants, and the rise of skills and qualifications (along with command of the language). This suggests greater tolerance on one level, as well as a shift towards selection of immigrants on the basis of the capabilities that they bring. 

Is this connected with the educational polarisation that the Survey also reported? It could be that there is a degree of self-interest at work: the highly skilled and educated are the most mobile, and therefore can be expected to favour migration in general; the least skilled and educated are most vulnerable to competition from unskilled migrants, and therefore favour selection by skill. Or perhaps skills and qualifications now serve as a socially acceptable basis for discrimination (not only against foreigners, of course). But again, it would be worth going further into these figures to see what lies behind them.

Finally, the Survey also reports a small rise in those who think immigrants need to be committed to the British way of life. Exactly what this means is of course rather fuzzy, as the report makes clear. And we should remember that the Survey took place before the Brexit vote and before this year’s wave of terror attacks, whose effects on social attitudes are still unknown. 

How does the BBC select its expert academic commentators?

The Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation & Skills is currently looking at the emerging shape of work in modern Britain. As someone interested in skills and learning, I am keeping an eye on their inquiry, and am looking forward to its report. Their work was featured this morning on the BBC’s flagship radio news programme Today, which interviewed the Committee chair and an expert commentator by the name of Jeremy Baker.


The interview with Baker created something of a Twitter storm. Introduced as ‘a retail analyst and affiliate professor at ESCP Europe Business School’, Baker proceeded to harp on about the notion of employment rights for entry-level workers, including trainees, which he repeatedly derided as ‘French’ and ‘middle class’.

Needless to say, Baker’s ideas were promptly rejected by Iain Wright, MP, who chairs the Select Committee. But given the rather peculiar nature of his comments, it seems reasonable to put the question: who is Jeffrey Baker, and what is his expertise? I did a bit of internet searching, and the results were mildly revealing.

First, the ESCP itself. ECSP is a private higher education institution, active in and recognised by a number of European states, with its origins in Paris. It enjoys a good reputation, and achieves well in international rankings of business schools.

The ESCP website lists Baker as an ‘affiliate professor’. What this means depends on the institution and individual; often, it is an appointment that is approved at departmental level, for someone whom the department wishes to contribute teaching or research.

The ESCP website tells us very little about Baker’s expertise. The one publication it mentions is his book Tolstoy’s Bicycle, described as ‘a creative look at career paths’, but which seems to be a popular compendium of high achievers and their ages, published in 1982. His current research is not listed, nor are his publications. A search on Google Scholar didn’t shed any further light on his expertise.

I have no idea whether the Today programme tried elsewhere and was turned down, or whether Baker or the ESCP put his name forward. But if you want an up-to-date expert on developments in the contemporary labour market, Baker doesn’t seem an obvious first choice.

Perhaps someone chuntering on about the French makes for good radio. But for those of us attempting to promote ideas of research informed policy, this morning’s interview was a step back.

Kids today: young people and the labour market (with PS)

One car trader claims that over 80% of applicants for apprenticeships are unsuitable for any employment. A major survey of nearly 88,000 businesses finds that about two-thirds of employers who recruit school-leavers report that most are well-prepared for work. Both reports appeared on the same day. Guess which hit the headlines?

Car sales and servicing company Arnold Clark was widely reported for saying that young people had wholly unrealistic expectations of work. The claims, which came in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee, were prominently reported in the Telegraph, while the Scotsman added a leader comment and front page report.

Such claims are, of course, familiar. In this case, they commanded attention for three main reasons. First, Arnold Clark is a respected firm, which is known widely to invest in training. Second, the claims were precise and factual, referring to the 81% of young people whose applications for apprenticeship places were rejected. Third, the company attacked colleges, describing them as babysitting youngsters, which gave journalists an obvious hook for their reports.

Let me start by saying that Arnold Clark strike me as a decent company by UK business standards. Okay, perhaps not the highest bar of moral probity, but I’d buy – have bought – a used car from them. The firm take apprentices, both in its core trading arm, and in its wholly owned training subsidiary. The parent company employs its apprentices, a tenth of whom are recruited from seriously disadvantaged youngsters, with support from the Prince’s Trust.

While I would love to know what proportion of turnover is spent on training by the company, this is not a whinging Dickensian boss who hates spending money on training new staff. Nevertheless, the story merits a closer look.

First, the submission to MSPs came not from Arnold Clark, but from its wholly-owned subsidiary, GTG Training. As well as internal staff training, GTG sells business training and support services externally, and this includes a large programme of modern apprenticeships. It is therefore a direct competitor of the college sector – something the press ignored.  

Second, GTG’s figures covered solely those who applied for apprenticeships with Arnold Clark, not other areas. The submission accepts that this is a biased sample, suggesting that we may well be recruiting at the lower end of the achievement spectrum. So we cannot treat this as representative of all young people – yet the press did just that.

Third, GTG’s criticism of colleges turns mainly on the question of study hours. The submission claims that college students typically study at most for 18 hours a week, with few or no extra-curricular activities. The result, according to the evidence submitted to MSPs, is that those who go to college re-emerge into the economy . . . with a further deterioration in concept of working week.

This sounds pretty crude logic. In my experience, youngsters realise that school or college are not work, nor are they meant to be. But it is true that most full-time national qualifications require around 20 hours attendance, while higher nationals require 15 hours. On top of that, students undertake self-directed study and assignments (also known as homework). Many also have a part-time job, to help fund their study.

Fourth, most of the young people’s supposed weaknesses don’t sound like the result of education. Rather, they are attitudinal or personal. The submission lists eight recurring themes, only two of which – communication skills and understanding of citizenship – sound like responsibilities of the education system. The others, such as inability to make a decision based on anything other than I want, seem to me typical of a more general consumerist view, which is pretty pervasive, and no doubt helps sell cars.

Fifth, the evidence of these weaknesses comes from round table discussions with recruiters. Really? Well, I have just had a round table discussion with a youth worker from Fife, who tells me that most of the disadvantage youngsters he works with would love a steady job, and indeed many jump when offered the chance. Yes, they need training, but who doesn’t?

MSPs might pose a few sharp questions when they meet GTG. They could do worse than look at the latest employer skills survey from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. There is a neat chart on page 30, showing that 68% of Scottish employers who hired school-leavers reported that they were either well-prepared or very well-prepared for work, while 82% of those who recruited Scottish college-leavers took the same view.

UKCES also reported on employers’ criticisms of young people. In Scotland, the most frequent complaint was over lack of work experience among school-leavers, and lack of specific skills or competences among college recruits. Attitude and personality (including punctuality) were the second most frequent complaint of school-leavers, but few employers thought these a problem for college recruits.

Comparing across the home nations, Scottish employers were more likely to think young people well-prepared for work. But the responses were broadly similar across the UK, with most employers taking a pretty positive view. In fact, employers appear so satisfied that you’re more likely to be knocked over by a spaceship than seeing this part of the story making media headlines.

Either Arnold Clark is in a tiny minority of employers who are flummoxed by the challenges of today’s teenagers, or GTG Training is using the submission to have a go at its competitors in the college sector. This fits a particular press narrative, in which young people are invariably stigmatised, their skills derided and their personalities lampooned.


Postscript, added 24 May

David Scott, head of the firm that made this critical submission to the Scottish Parliament, failed to attend the committee meeting on 23 May to discuss his paper. According to the BBC, Mr Scott claimed that he had an unforeseen business engagement. Needless to say, politicians of all parties were unamused – or more accurately, amused themselves at Mr Scott’s expense. The BBC report is at:

Results of the 2011 UKCES employer skill survey are available at: