Some issues have been hanging over the vocational sector for 40 years, says Ewart Keep. If we truly want to transform our society and economy, we can’t afford to keep passing the buck

As FE and skills have taken centre stage in this election battle, and parties vie for our attention with policies and promises, it is worth reflecting on some of the deep-seated and intractable issues facing the next education secretary.

First, the apprenticeship policy is suffering from a lethal combination of providers anxious to game the system creatively, and employers keen to get their levy back without doing anything new by way of training. The result has been an explosion of higher-level training for established adult employees. There is nothing wrong with this – indeed more is needed – but provision for young people has fallen, the opposite of what policymakers had hoped for.

At some point in 2020 the apprenticeship levy pot will run out, with nothing left over for smaller firms. The government can either try to reduce/cap costs, or restrict the age, wage or level of training of apprentices, but either “solution” will be met by howls of rage. Fortunately for the new secretary, the decision will probably have to be made by the Treasury as the levy is a UK-wide tax.

Next, T-levels. The government is already touting them as a new gold standard qualification, with optimistic projections about how employers will react to them when recruiting – before a single student has completed one. But the bulk of 16 to 19 students in FE are on courses at level 2 or below, the concept of a “transition year” is still nothing more than a concept, and there are serious questions about where work placements will come from and whether they can function as intended. And that’s not to mention the sheer economics of provision. 

The nation also has to come to terms with the gradual retreat of employers from training employees. Best estimates are that between 1997 and 2017 the volume of training given by companies to their workers in the UK fell by 60 per cent, and there is no sign of a halt to this decline. It is not a temporary phenomenon, but appears to be a structural trend deeply rooted in employment and competitive strategies. The importance of this issue cannot be over-estimated. It partly underlies the Labour Party’s lifelong learning proposals and the Lib Dems’ “skills wallet”. We haven’t even chosen whether to embrace this trend or try to reverse it; either will be incredibly challenging.

There is the question of a vision for vocational education

Fourth, governance. Civil servants still refer to an education system, but in fact what policy has created over the past 20 years is a set of quasi-markets, funded through atomised, individual student choice and superintended by a host of regulators (commissioners, ESFA, Ofsted, OfS, etc). Fragmentation has brought multiple problems, of which Hadlow and Highbury are simply the most egregious examples. Local accountability is often weak or non-existent. Because funding follows individual choice, neither employers nor government have many levers to influence the shape of provision and, where it applies, devolution is patchy, weak and stalled. It is unclear what solutions are available.

Finally, there is the question of a vision for vocational education. To date the Conservatives have eschewed formulating one, but the other parties have started sketching theirs. Whether it’s a strategy or just a set of objectives, though, the capacity of government to deliver any of it is open to serious doubt. Powerful, capable, intermediary bodies have been abolished and their expertise dissipated. Collective employer organisation to address skills issues is now very limited – probably more so than in any other developed country. At national, local and sectoral levels, capacity to craft and deliver policy and interventions around skills and competiveness is extremely weak.

The upshot is that, unless the new incumbent starts with structural reform, we may find ourselves with a secretary of state with great policies, but no means to really implement them. Again.