Labour conference

Seeing a party leader actually talking about FE and skills policy is both encouraging and unnerving. Nobody was as pleased as me to hear about apprenticeships in Ed Miliband’s otherwise tepid speech, but when we’re this close to election, it also makes me worry. Apprenticeships are already a heavily political issue, with every party considering them to be our best bet when it comes to job creation and meeting the skills shortage.

I sincerely hope that, once the other parties have responded, as I am sure they will, and when someone enters Downing Street next May, what we end up with is better quality apprenticeships with more funding and more support, not just a burned-out car of an election pledge with no more thrust.

“Education, education, education” were Tony Blair’s famous words at a Labour Party conference many years ago, but it’s important to remember it’s not just schools that help shape our young people into the budding good citizens of tomorrow. It was spiriting to hear Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt at least mention FE colleges, but until we see a pledge to reverse this government’s savage cuts to our sector, I suspect we will take Dr Hunt’s words with more than a pinch of salt.

Apprentice minimum wage

There is hot air all around as the party leaders bluster around over proposed increases to the minimum wage. Mr Miliband has pledged a rise to £8, without explaining that it could get there anyway based on inflation and pledges already made by David Cameron. Natalie Bennett, of the Green Party, has promised to raise it to £10, which is a bit more like it but still pales in comparison to the actual cost of living. The debate is a refreshing one, but what nobody seems to be talking about is what this will all mean for apprentices.

At the moment, unless you have access to the Bank of Mum and Dad, savings in the bank or are willing to work 20+ hours in Tesco over the weekend, it is nearly impossible to live on the apprenticeship minimum wage — currently a measly £2.68 per hour. Young apprentices who cannot live at home face the prospect of paying rent, bills and living costs on around £100 a-week. It’s time to address the lack of parity of esteem here, and bring apprentices into line with other workers. Minimum should mean minimum, not “minimum, unless you’re training on the job”.

Re-sits and more re-sits

Conference season is a time for divided opinions, but I am pleased to see there is one area we can all agree on. The government is right to want all 16-year-olds without English and maths to continue to study those subjects until they reach the equivalent level. This will go a long way to help tackle the huge problem with literacy and numeracy levels in this country, but the government has to end its obsession with GCSEs before this will work.

If a learner has failed to get their GCSE it can be for a number of reasons, but sometimes it is just that the qualification itself was not suitable. Simply encouraging them to re-sit the exams over and over again until they achieve is not appropriate, so Functional Skills and other equivalent qualifications need to be give equal footing if we are going to upskill our young people in this way.

Yes, Minister?

Does anyone else think it’s time we heard something about FE from Skills Minister Nick Boles? It’s been months now since his appointment and I’m not sure I’ve heard him utter a word about one of the most important parts of his portfolio. I will be keeping an eye on the coverage of Tory conference, but not holding my breath.

The Secret Pricipal features on the last Monday of every month