It’s disappointing that Kevin Lynch, former head of the public service in Ottawa, is the latest victim of that peculiarly Canadian disease, where one’s casual knowledge of the German apprenticeship system leads one to lose all critical faculties – as demonstrated in this awful article from the weekend Globe.
The article starts by noting that, “in proficiency in numeracy and literacy among 16-24 year-olds…, Canada is lagging the results for the Nordic countries, Australia and Germany”. Wrong. Well, at least partly wrong. In literacy, the statement is true with respect to Australia, Finland, and Sweden, but differences between Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Canada are statistically insignificant. And in numeracy, Australia and Norway are identical to Canada (pgs. 72-82 of the PIAAC report). The article then goes on to note that, “In preparing young Canadians… experiential education appears to be quite valuable, especially for the skilled trades, and here there may be much to learn from others” – “others” apparently meaning Germany.
Leaving aside the issue that German PIAAC results aren’t really better than Canadian ones, it’s hard to understand why Lynch thinks that – even in theory – higher participation in the skilled trades would have strong positive effects on PIAAC scores. Literacy and numeracy “skills” are quite different than “skilled” trades.
Lynch then sails into the usual puppy love about German vocationalism. It’s “impressive”, according to him, that 50% of German high school students end up in vocational programs. As if this was a choice. As if streaming didn’t enter into it. As if this streaming didn’t end up disproportionately steering poorer Germans and immigrants into vocational schools. As if Germans themselves hadn’t noted how this dynamic contributes to Germany having among the most unequal literacy and numeracy outcomes in the OECD.
From there, it’s the usual conflation of apprenticeships with skilled trades, a peculiarly Canadian mistake. If you look at the top ten occupations for apprenticeships in Germany, only three are in (what we’d call) the skilled trades: mechanic, mechanical engineer, and cook (the other seven – retail sales, office administration, business administration, medical administration, hairdressing, wholesale and export sales, and “sales” – would mostly be taught at colleges in Canada). And then, to wrap up the article, is the specious argument that this vocational education system is the cause of Germany’s current low level of unemployment (seven years ago Germany had an unemployment rate of 12% – were apprenticeships the cause of that, too?).
Lynch’s argument, then, is: German youth have better PIAAC skills than Canadian youths (partly wrong), PIAAC skills are improved by skilled trades (huh?), German apprenticeships = skilled trades (wrong), and apprenticeships = lower unemployment (wrong).
Experiential education is, of course, a good thing. But how about we discuss it without all this irrelevant nonsense about Germany? It doesn’t improve the quality of our debate, at all.