Speaking at the launch of the Third Competitiveness White Paper Mrs Shephard said:
'Education and training is crucial to our competitiveness. We have a major programme of reforms in place to tackle well over a century's neglect of this country's skill needs. These are already producing significant results, and will deliver more as their full effects feed through. But if we are to match the best in the world, we have to bench-mark ourselves honestly and accurately, against other countries, to see where we still need to improve.
'The Skills Audit shows that we are strong in higher education. More of our workforce have higher level skills than any of the other countries except the USA.
-- Almost one-third of young people are now going into full-time higher education, compared to 12% in 1979
-- We have stronger lifetime learning systems than either Germany or France
-- Employers think our young people are particularly strong on IT skills
'But there are also areas where more still needs to be done. At level 2 - GCSE and equivalents - we have fewer people qualified than France and Germany, though the studies of particular sectors found few differences in actual skills between the three countries. Multi-national employers still see relative weaknesses in some key work-related skills.
'However, there have been real improvements not captured by the Audit figures:
-- In 1995, 67% of young people were qualified at level 2, compared to 52% in 1990
-- 44% were qualified at level 3 (A level and equivalent), compared to 30% in 1990
-- Nearly 60% of 18 year-olds took part in education and training,compared to 45% in 1990
'Our strengths and the recent improvements reflect the huge amount we have already done in schools through the national curriculum; tests; performance tables; and regular inspection.
'This year we are taking forward far-reaching reforms in post-16 education; and have set up a Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education to retain our position of strength well into the next century.
'I shall also be publishing a White Paper to extend self-government and selection in schools; introducing legislation on school discipline; setting up a network of literacy and numeracy centres; taking forward fundamental reforms to teacher training; and reviewing our policies to tackle low achievement in basic literacy and numeracy amongst young people and adults.'
The Skills Audit compares the UK with the United States, France, Germany and Singapore. The Audit examines skills and qualifications at several different levels, from basic literacy and numeracy to higher education.
Mrs Shephard said:
'It is a serious and thorough analysis, but international comparisons are always difficult and have to be treated with caution. It provides a snapshot of the position in 1993 and 1994. Even then the data do not fully reflect changes in recent years in the different countries. The UK figures, for example, do not take account of the substantial increases in achievement at GCSE, 'A' level, and first degree since the start of this decade.
'The Skills Audit gives a national picture. It averages out regional differences by up to ten percentage points. If all regions were as good as the best, we would be much nearer reaching the National Targets. This is not down to government. It is down to those who are involved with the delivery - schools, teachers, governors, LEAs, parents and pupils themselves.
'We undertook the Skills Audit because we wanted to get as clear a picture as possible of where we stand against our competitors. It has shown we have areas of real strength. I am confident that we have in place the measures to improve and maintain our competitiveness. I look to our partners in the education, training and business worlds to contribute to this success.'