Gaps remain in Labour’s plans to fill shortages and spread opportunity

Labour’s manifesto gives further education grounds for optimism, but the sector will need more than warm words and big ambitions

Labour’s manifesto gives further education grounds for optimism, but the sector will need more than warm words and big ambitions

14 Jun 2024, 5:00

Notable in Sir Keir Starmer’s speech launching the Labour manifesto today was a lack of clear headlines on education. Though with polling showing education is not high on the public’s list of priorities for change, it was never going to get top billing.

It should nevertheless be welcomed that among the Labour’s five missions is ‘breaking down to the barriers to opportunity’. Under this heading, last year they announced an ambitious target to reduce intergenerational income persistence to Scandinavian levels – or in other words, improve social mobility.

To achieve this, they will have to go way beyond the policies set out in their manifesto – if and when there is headroom in public spending. And the further education sector will need to play a key role in any transformative plan to spread opportunity.

There were positive words in Starmer’s speech for further education, and a promise to transform FE colleges into specialist Technical Excellence Colleges.

Much of Labour’s broader narrative on growth has encouragingly focused on skills and jobs for the future. However, without tangible details on funding and how these ambitions will be met, this feels like an extension of the ‘parity of esteem’ conversation which has delivered little for the sector over the past two decades.

The establishment of a new body in ‘Skills England’ and plans to tie skills into broader industrial strategy have clear potential. But it is vital that the new body considers young people as a distinct group as well as adult learners, and that its work specifically considers barriers to training opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Devolving decision making to local areas in terms of skills needs has potential to genuinely help to level up skills across the country, but whether it has a positive effect, and where, will depend on implementation.

The promise to change the apprenticeship levy into a Growth and Skills Levy has been telegraphed since last year. While employers will no doubt appreciate the flexibility, it is absolutely vital that this does not come at the expense of high-quality apprenticeship provision that gives young people a qualification that has wider currency beyond the immediate needs of the employer.

They will have to go way beyond these policies

There is a significant danger that the levy backslides further into focusing on employers’ internal learning and development needs rather than funding a national apprenticeship offer that meets the broader skills demands of the economy and provides high quality alternatives for the 50 per cent of the population who don’t attend higher education.

Ringfencing will be necessary to protect the broader social goals of the apprenticeship programme.

While the manifesto points out the reduction in apprenticeship starts in recent years, the cannibalisation of the levy for other types of training may serve to worsen that trend. Increasing apprenticeship starts for young people will require investment, as well as a combination of carrots and sticks for employers.

The Sutton Trust has outlined a series of such options, including ringfencing a portion of the levy for young people, and extending subsidies to employers to create new opportunities.

Nonetheless, the acknowledgement of the importance of pre-apprenticeship skills is a positive one. An expanded traineeship programme has significant potential to widen access pathways into apprenticeships.

Labour are right to identify good teaching as the best thing you can offer a child to boost their chances in life. But it will be important that reforms to improve the status, pay and professional development of teachers also extends to post-16 settings.

Disappointingly, there was no mention of extending Pupil Premium funding to post-16. Socio-economic disadvantage doesn’t stop at 16, so there is no reason that dedicated funding should either.

The Sutton Trust’s manifesto of costed policies proposes an extension of the scheme. This would give sixth forms and colleges (particularly those supporting the most disadvantaged communities) targeted funding to boost learning, including targeted programmes such as tutoring, attendance interventions and staff development.

There is room for some optimism on today’s evidence. However, if we want further education to truly deliver on the promise of filling skills gaps and providing quality routes for young people into the workplace, the sector is going to need much more than warm words.

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