Education Secretary Gillian Shephard this week admitted that the country's workforce is "lagging behind" international competitors in terms of basic skills of literacy and numeracy. Labour's education spokesman David Blunkett called this "the first own goal of Euro 96".
Mrs Shephard was addressing Britain's business leaders before publication of the first Skills Audit, which compares the United Kingdom with France, Germany, Singapore and the United States. She was also speaking before the publication of the third competitiveness White Paper, due out yesterday, which is expected to detail a voucher scheme for 16-19-year-olds.
She said that while the Skills Audit showed the country is strong in higher education, lifetime learning and IT skills, it demonstrated that at the craft and technician level the UK lags behind its rivals.
Mrs Shephard said that the new qualifications framework proposed by Sir Ron Dearing would help. A new system of national traineeships is also being created which will prioritise core skills.
But David Blunkett, addressing the same Confederation of British Industry conference, said that "the Skills Audit, laudable as it is, is the first own goal of Euro 96". He said: "The Tories have repeatedly failed to address the skills deficit. They seem content to write off the third of the working-age population who expect never to do any education or training."
Labour promised to raise the standards of vocational qualifications and broaden the scope of A levels to give young people the range of skills needed for work.