The government has had a few good ideas this year, admits Gordon Marsden, but it seems determined not to pay for any of them to actually happen
As we count down to the end of 2017, we can reflect on how different the skills landscape is today from 12 months ago. The Institute for Apprenticeships is now operational – finally – with a permanent chief executive. They’ll need him, given the big ask when the IfA takes on technical education in April, on top of the challenges the apprenticeship levy will set him in the New Year.
While the government has begun trying to rectify some of its past mistakes, far more needs still to be done.
Apprenticeship starts for 2016/17 tell some of the story.
As a local MP, I worry that in Blackpool starts for under 19s are down 21 per cent on last year. Overall figures nationally are down 509,400 to 491,300. This is not just a towns issue – though it is crucial that government pays more attention to the particular issues faced by non-metropolitan areas, particularly post-Brexit.
Young people are being deprived of valuable opportunities by government’s short-sightedness. Its continuing failure to support non-levy-paying employers, on which Mark Dawe and AELP have spoken out, has left far too many providers in limbo.
From when we first laid down the original proposals for the Institute, through the TFE bill and the levy’s introduction, we have always said that ministers must take more time to listen to stakeholders. Many concerns both Labour and the sector at large once expressed have come to pass.
The government must act now on the need for more flexibility in the use of the levy.
Young people are being deprived of valuable opportunities by government’s short-sightedness
Ministers won’t be forgiven if we have a repeat of the Learning Loans fiasco – where lack of take-up forced the Treasury to claw back hundreds of millions of pounds that should have gone to FE.
In order to consolidate a winning strategy on apprenticeships we need more focus on progress and successful completions, not just on starts – especially as average monthly starts are 17 per cent lower than needed to hit the target. Concerns, not least from AELP, that management apprenticeships would soar in popularity when the levy came in, combined with the Sutton Trust’s ‘Better apprenticeships’ report, which found that two thirds of apprenticeships merely rebadge existing training, have increased fears about gaming the system. These are concerns I’ve consistently raised myself, that quality and progression would be overlooked in a race to the three million starts.
If we really want to expand quality and quantity, as we do need to do, our call loud and clear in 2018 is for effective traineeships to help deliver economic potential and social mobility. A once-promising idea has fallen foul of the government’s failure to promote them effectively. The latest figures showing only one in five trainees progress to apprenticeships are testament to this failure.
That is why we will be working with AELP and other stakeholders in January, hosting a parliamentary event to discuss the crucial role traineeships could play in moving forward.
We also now finally have a careers strategy. After many unfulfilled promises we have the bones of something to work with. Again however, as I have already told FE Week, the promises are not yet enabled either with enough money or the capacity to deliver them. Ministers have not got adequate resources to make this work.
In areas where major gains in reskilling and retraining could be made, the DfE has been far too timid. The fact that the Union Learning Fund, a programme accepted as hugely successful, remains frozen at £12 million – with only last-minute pressure from us and others moving the Treasury to dispense small change to prevent a proposed 33-per-cent annual cut of £4 million – indicts the poverty of ambition that still hangs with this Tory government.
That is why we will be talking far more in 2018 about out National Education Service. The NES would address some of the long-standing lack of parity of esteem towards FE and a much fairer, more joined-up ecosystem to deliver life chances and social mobility. We will recognise the central role that FE, skills and apprenticeships can and must deliver for 21st century Britain.
Gordon Marsden is shadow skills minister