General election 2019: The parties’ 2019 commitments on skills and lessons from the past
My research often centres on the education and skills system and how this prepares people for the labour market, enables them to build fulfilling careers and to be resilient in a changing labour market. The vocational system has long been held as the solution to our skills problem and policymakers have longstanding ambitions to reform further and vocational education, improve funding, and increase employer ownership. However, experience shows these things are not so easily achieved. The current manifestos indicate that all parties again want to see a step change in vocational/technical training. What is already certain is that the further education (FE) sector is yet again set for change. And while improved funding will always be welcome it comes at the cost of flux and uncertainty while new policies are implemented and tested.
Let’s start with the jewel in the skills policy crown — Apprenticeships — and with the vision rather than funding. The Liberal Democrats are determined that there will be an expansion of ‘high quality’ Apprenticeships backed by new sector-led National Colleges (more on these later). The Labour Party is committing to continue to deliver world-class skills through Apprenticeships in the defence industry and to introduce Climate Apprenticeships — a new STEM programme to support a Green Industrial Revolution. The Conservatives note that their post 2013 reforms (the Future of Apprenticeships Implementation Plan) have led to higher quality Apprenticeships and their manifesto commits to creating more Apprenticeship opportunities. While Labour is the only party not to explicitly commit to an expansion of the current programme — although it presumably will do so through the introduction of the Climate Apprenticeships — the parties are light on the detail of how expansion will really be achieved. The statistics show that despite effort over many years, it is harder to increase the number of Apprenticeship opportunities than policymakers let on. Employers hold the key, and it is funding and hard business decisions that drive the number of Apprenticeships available in our economy. Has there been enough thought given to why employers are not doing more?
Understandably, all parties are fixing their sights on the Apprenticeship Levy, which could be described as a policy ‘miss’ or at least one that has yet to deliver. And while no party is talking about who is taking Apprenticeships through the Levy and whether this funding supports the right people, there are indications that the Labour and Liberal Democrats want to see some change. However, first let’s review the Conservative’s proposals on the Levy which identify that it requires a review; this is the least ambitious vision and we might judge most non-committal. The Liberal Democrats intend to loosen the criteria for spending the levy by reforming it into the Skills and Training levy, enabling employers to use their pot for a wider variety of skills provision, which may also mean it targets a wider range of employees. And the Liberal Democrats will set aside 25 per cent of this pot as a Social Mobility Fund to target skills in the most disadvantaged areas. Similarly, Labour will reform the Levy such that it can be used for a wider range of accredited training. It will also introduce additional bursaries to support disadvantaged learners including those from BAME backgrounds, looked after children, and personnel leaving the military.
While additional, targeted Apprentice funding is valuable and should reduce individual barriers to take-up, the policy to use the Levy flexibly suggests a shift to more funding for adult skills which has been a policy gap in recent years — arguably since the demise of Train to Gain and the repurposing of this funding to support Apprenticeships (particularly adult apprenticeships). And what we know from Train to Gain is that funding will drive individual and employer behaviour; we should expect adult training to increase as a result. However, Train to Gain became criticised for its lack of additionality. In effect it displaced training that employers were previously funding. Could the same happen again? Maybe, but what I believe should most concern us right now, following the significant reforms to vocational education qualifications in recent years, is what qualifications are suitable for adults in the workplace? NVQs have now lost prevalence and are not necessarily systematically in the new Apprenticeships which instead rely on synoptic end-point assessment rather than specific qualifications per se — and the new T Level programmes are viewed as too large to be suitable for adult learners. These two key provisions do not provide the way forward to training and certifying adults. What will be the qualification vehicle to document increased adult skills levels?
It is clear that the three parties see employers’ ownership of skills at the heart of the skills matter. What is not clear is their view on the existing employer engagement in the vocational/technical curriculum and whether the existing channels will remain in place. For example, since 2013, employer groups have led the work to define the Apprenticeship Standards, and since 2017, employer groups have formed to consult on the T Level Standards — the vision for a full-time, classroom based technical route in the post-16 phase. None of the main parties acknowledge employers’ roles in these developments and notably, none — not even the Conservatives — make reference to the new T Levels which commence roll-out from next year. It may be that policymakers on all sides have spotted that T Levels will not be the right answer for many, but that is not explicit in their proposals. Nor is anything explicit on the need to develop high quality technical qualifications that are suitable for adults to study on the job or in part-time mode.
Linking employment and skills
The parties are drawing strong links between their employment agendas and the push for skills and, as noted, there is a renewed focus on adult skills for employees and for those (re-)entering the labour market. The Conservatives are envisaging a National Skills Fund that will help new labour market entrants as well as returners via matched funding to gain the skills and qualifications they need for employment. It will also upgrade the further education sector estate and deliver 20 new Institutes of Technology focused on STEM skills. This new National Skills Fund could be a broadening and refocusing of the current National Retraining Scheme, which is not mentioned in their pledges. Nonetheless, an approach that supports both workers to transition in their careers and those outside the labour market to enter work is welcome, no matter the branding used.
The creation of new training institutions is an ambition the Liberal Democrats share with the Conservatives. In their version, employer ownership will be taken forward through new National Colleges focused on priority sectors. Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties neatly side-step the challenges of getting new institutions off the ground and active — it will take time for any benefits of these to be reaped. There are likely to be lessons to be learned from the current National Colleges initiative — although again this initiative is not highlighted by the parties, including the Conservatives.
Supporting young people in post-16 education
What else is on offer? Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is Labour and the Liberal Democrats who are putting new direct funding initiatives forward to help people remain in education and to train once an adult — whether in or out of work. For young people progressing into the 16–19 phase of education the Education Maintenance Allowance will see a return if either of these parties is elected. Under Liberal Democrats it will be known as the Young Person’s Premium but both policies involve an element of direct payment to learners to cover costs such as equipment, travel and subsistence. These are welcome developments though it is not entirely clear what problem they help to solve, other than the wider issues of social deprivation. When introduced under a Labour government, the EMA sought to incentivise sustained participation in education beyond the age of 16 however high rates of participation were achieved many years ago and have been sustained. This reintroduction of EMA (or in the guise of the Young Person Premium) can thus be seen to target the needs of the most disadvantaged learners in the 16–19 phase. Our work to evaluate the efforts to test industry placements in the lead up to T Level roll-out suggests there are increasing numbers of FE learners who are reliant on part-time work to contribute to household income. It is perhaps wise to have dual strategies, but I would hope that these parties’ ambitions for labour market restructuring and improvements to pay and conditions mean fewer young people are left needing financial support to remain in education.
The Liberal Democrats and Labour also make the clearest commitments to adult skills funding. The Liberal Democrats intend to introduce Skills Wallets (Individual Learning Accounts anyone?) and plan to add funds at key ages (25, 40 and 55) to enable/encourage adults to train lifelong. Each wallet will be worth up to £10,000 overall and learners and employers will be able to add to their accounts to boost the funding available to individuals. While this is a policy that gains wide support — for example, it is an approach taken forward in parts of Europe and often recommended in VET research, moreover it is a policy lever that the UK experimented with some years back. Based on our experience of evaluating the Adult Learner Accounts (a precursor to the Individual Learning Accounts), it is also a policy that is hard to communicate and get off the ground, although for individuals accounts proved effective and supported progression in learning. While the Liberal Democrats indicate that careers guidance will be supplied alongside the Skills Wallets, strategies to build awareness and uptake will be important.
For reasons of ease of communication, Labour’s skills policy may prove more attractive. According to its manifesto, Labour will offer free training and qualification up to Level 3 (ie. lifelong until this level is reached) and additionally it will support disadvantaged learners to study for qualifications at Levels 4–6 for up to six years with maintenance grants. Labour is the only party to commit to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and perhaps unsurprisingly the only one to commit to the Union Learning Fund and to prioritise a higher degree of social partnership than would be seen with other parties. The offer sounds very similar to Train to Gain, which proved effective in reaching people in work and engaging them in training to improve qualifications. However, the NAO’s findings cannot be ignored and such a policy is likely to displace some elements of existing employer funding for training — at least based on experience.
Change is certain but what might be lost?
So what does it all mean and what are we getting? From all parties and particularly the Liberal Democrats and Labour, there is a strong commitment to improve skills provision and recognition that we need to increase the rate of adult learning. Two parties are quite strongly focused on the experience of learning within the 16–19 phase too. But none appear strongly focused on the recent developments, and it seems that vocational qualifications will remain in reform for a further extended period while employers are brought around the table to again specify their needs. Whether the pace of that change will be sufficient — given fears over Brexit and skills — has yet to be seen.
But the risk, for the T Levels particularly, is that the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater, and qualifications that employers have been part of specifying could again be lost or deprioritised (14–19 Diplomas? Foundation degrees?). That the further education sector is oft described as the poor cousin should be a concern given its potential to build the associate tech skill levels that have long been a UK ambition, but you have to question whether the energy expended on constantly seeking to change it will ever pay off if key policies cannot be retained long enough to become fully embedded.