A Labour government will review functional skills requirements in apprenticeships, the shadow skills minister has said.
However, the party won’t commit to reversing the government’s removal of funding from level 3 qualifications, like BTECs, that overlap with T Levels.
Department for Education rules state that apprentices without a GCSE grade 4 or above in English and/or maths must reach that level 2 standard to achieve their apprenticeship.
Training providers have long complained that the generic curriculum, exam-based assessment and poor funding of the English and maths functional skills courses contribute to the low achievement rate of apprenticeships.
FE Week reported last March that apprentices on standards hit a 51.8 per cent achievement rate in 2020/21, prompting the then skills minister Alex Burghart to announce a new target achievement rate of 67 per cent by 2025.
In an interview with FE Week following his keynote speech at the Annual Apprenticeship Conference earlier this week, Labour’s shadow skills minister, Toby Perkins, said that he shared training providers’ concerns and committed to a review of functional skills if his party wins the next general election.
He said: “Functional skills should be precisely what it says on the tin. It is my view that maths and English skills are very important, but I don’t believe the current functional skills arrangements work. I think they are a reason why there are low completion rates. We will be reviewing the way that works.”
Perkins said reversing or maintaining the Conservative’s policy of defunding BTECs and other level 3 qualifications that overlap with T Levels “just depends on what is going to happen between now and the next election”.
He added that Labour is “not hostile” to T Levels and is “100 per cent in favour” of choice at level 3 for young people. If Labour was in power, Perkins said, it would not be defunding overlapping qualifications.
If Labour does win the next election, which must take place by January 24, 2025, Perkins said his position will be informed by how providers have responded to the level 3 reforms, rather than expecting providers to anticipate Labour’s policy.
If Perkins does become the skills minister in January 2025 (although the election is widely expected to happen sooner) he will not have long before at-risk qualifications lose their funding that September.
“We’re absolutely clear that the path the government is pursuing right now is a mistake. Now, if in 18 months’ time, or in a couple of years, things have gone through and lots of providers have got rid of their BTEC qualifications and people are doing T Levels then obviously we’ll be in a different place to where we are today.
“If we’re proved correct, and that the move purely to T Levels means that lots of students who could be excluded, then, you know, we wouldn’t tolerate that situation carrying on. But it is just difficult to know, given the direction governments are taking, what will the landscape look like by the end of 2024, potentially 2025. You have to look at what you’re inheriting. And I just don’t think that’s knowable at this moment,” he said.
Labour’s skills and growth levy
Last summer, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer announced that he would replace the current apprenticeship levy with a “skills and growth levy”. It would ringfence half of funds raised through the levy for employers to choose to spend on other forms of skills training.
The policy was criticised for being unclear about apprenticeships for smaller businesses, which are currently funded by larger employers not spending their full levy.
Calls to allow for courses other than apprenticeships to be funded through the levy have grown. Even prominent Conservatives like former education ministers Jo Johnson, Anne Milton and Justine Greening have made the case for change.
Johnson has gone on to suggest that the amount employers pay into the levy should be doubled to address chronic underinvestment in training by employers.
Perkins is lukewarm to Johnson’s suggestion to increase employers’ levy bills.
“I’m always enthusiastic about more money for investment in the next generation of skills. Having said that, I’m also very conscious that there are many businesses who are feeling the pinch right now.
“The changes we are proposing at this stage are about flexibility. But in terms of increasing the tax level tax burdens on business, this moment in time, that is not that is not on the on the agenda.”
While the door is closed on generating more revenue from employers, for now, Perkins does want to address falling numbers of apprenticeships at lower levels and to see more opportunities go to younger workers.
“We want to see more levy being spent on entry level apprenticeships. We’re committed to degree apprenticeships, but we want to make sure that there’s an increase in the number of young people doing levels two and three.
“I think there will be further announcements from us in this space.”