Sunak’s national service plan puts £2.6bn employment training fund at risk

The Conservatives have pledged to scrap the fund from 2028 and Labour hasn't committed to funding it beyond 2025

The Conservatives have pledged to scrap the fund from 2028 and Labour hasn't committed to funding it beyond 2025

The future of billions of pounds in funding for employment and skills training programmes aimed at the country’s most deprived areas is facing “huge uncertainty” following the prime minister’s proposed introduction of a “modern national service”. 

Created to replace the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund  following Brexit, the £2.6 billion UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) is dedicated to projects that improve local social and economic outcomes between 2022 and 2025.

Much of it funds crucial “third sector” programmes for priority groups, such as lone parents, ex-offenders, or people classed as not in education, employment or training (NEET).

The fund is targeted at the most disadvantaged parts of the UK and is a core part of the Conservatives’ levelling up agenda to “spread opportunity more equally” across the country.

About a third of the £1.5 billion is also ringfenced for “multiply” numeracy courses, which vary widely across the country but include teaching people how to avoid debt, budgeting for the self-employed and maths for parents and carers.

Last week, however, Rishi Sunak pledged to scrap the fund completely from 2028 to pay for a new national service scheme for 18-year-olds. This could be one of 30,000 selective full-time military placements lasting one year or 25 days of voluntary placements with organisations such as the fire service, police, NHS or a charity.

Keir Starmer attacked Sunak over the funding of national service during Tuesday night’s ITV general election debate, calling the idea “desperate” and “taking money away from levelling up”.

Sunak replied that his national service plan would be “transformational”, adding: “The money we spend on levelling up is partly spent on spreading skills and opportunities for young people.”

It is not clear whether Labour would retain the UKSPF, but a report published by Gordon Brown in 2022 recommended “merging” the fund with the main adult education budget.

‘Betrayal’

A study by Jonathan Payne at De Montford University has already found that the third sector faces “huge uncertainty” due to its reliance on UKSPF funding.

Payne, who surveyed 64 third-sector organisations, said that three-quarters of them have already reduced their services due to a drop in funding during the transition between EU funding, which ended in 2020, and the UKSPF’s launch in 2022.

Ian Ross, whose company Whitehead-Ross Education has £2.4 million of UKSPF contracts across nine local authorities, told FE Week that scrapping the fund would be a Conservative “betrayal” of its levelling up promises.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives responded to requests for comment.

Marguerite Hogg, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges said members are reporting that the UKSPF and Multiply are both making a “real impact” on learners’ lives.

She added: ““For many adults, maths can be a huge source of anxiety, and Multiply can be a real stepping stone towards a maths qualification as it is an introduction to numeracy in a non-intimidating way.

“The potential risk facing Multiply is worrying, and there must be policy development and funding to ensure that adults can continue to access maths provision like this.”

Simon Ashworth, the Association of Employment and Learning Provider’s director of policy said: “Elements of the European Social Fund previously had a strong focus on support for those not in education, employment or training (NEET) and much of this has already been lost following the introduction of its infrastructure-heavy replacement, the UKSPF.

“Given there are currently 900,000 NEETs, any further reduction in spending on UKSPF creates a real risk of critical funds getting lost for what should be priority groups.” 

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