The skills bill could have been so much better

25 Feb 2022, 6:00

Both Labour and Conservative voices have been ignored by the government, writes Toby Perkins

After the government blocked no fewer than 32 amendments to the skills bill, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said it “will leave this place in a much improved state”.

I have to disagree. It was weakened, and the skills bill could have been so much better.

People are used to politicians disagreeing on party lines, but in recent debates in parliament, respected Conservative voices lined up to criticise the government’s approach to the bill.

That included former Tory education secretaries Ken Clarke and Ken Baker – the latter going as far as to call the bill “an act of educational vandalism”.

Sadly, the government was having none of their wise counsel: on Monday every Lords amendment was taken out and every Commons amendment blocked.

Legislation to improve skills education is always welcome. But for Labour, there are four key issues, which the skills bill fails to address or risks making worse.

Too many children do not have access to professional careers guidance and work experience.

Too few apprenticeships are available, because the apprenticeship levy isn’t working as it needs to, with too many small businesses not participating, and fewer level 2 and 3 apprenticeships.

There’s too little ambition on local skills, with local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) envisaged as an outsourcing of administration rather than boosting the skills that different communities need to prosper.

And the transition towards the new T Levels has sadly become a case study in how a laudable policy aim can be put at risk by incompetent execution and poor planning.

It matters that we get these things right, for our young people and for our country.

The pace of change is accelerating, and opportunities for young people and adults to train and retrain have never been so important, so that opportunity is shared across every corner of our country, and everyone can enjoy security and prosperity at work.

We want young people to leave education both ready for work and ready for life, with the digital skills they need, the careers advice they deserve, and work experience for everyone.

Giving children – particularly those from more deprived communities – a chance to experience the world of work and a sense of potential careers isn’t just about their horizons after education, but often about giving a purpose to their studying too.

For too long, careers guidance and work experience has been seen as additional to a school’s contribution to a child’s development.

Labour believes that good-quality, face-to-face careers guidance and meaningful work experience is vital part of every young person’s education and development. 

That’s why Keir Starmer committed last year that the next Labour government will offer all children face-to-face careers guidance and a minimum of two weeks meaningful work experience.

On apprenticeships, the bill basically left the current system untouched. That’s a serious mistake. Too many small businesses that don’t pay the levy have now also moved away from offering apprenticeships. 

The bill basically left the broken apprenticeship system untouched

Reforming this broken system and addressing the drop in apprenticeship starts should have been at the heart of the legislation, not out of scope.

At a local level, what skills reform this government has achieved since 2010 has been about putting employers in charge.

The government rejected an amendment that would have created a more collaborative approach and ensured that LSIPs heard from private and public sector employers, FE colleges, independent providers, local devolved decision-makers and local enterprise partnerships.

And while T Levels are a welcome innovation, they have yet to complete their pilot phase and the government has simply not managed the transition as well as is needed. 

There has been widespread alarm from all corners ̶ from employers, unions, and colleges alike ̶at the government’s plans to scrap so many level 3 qualifications in advance of the new qualification being established and recognised.

Labour welcomes T Levels, but this haste risks wrecking the journey.

The next Labour government will build a better and more coherent system. But the bill the House of Commons has just voted through represents many missed opportunities. 

Britain deserves better.

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