What am I going to do next: part 3?
Youth Unemployment and the White Paper on Skills for Jobs
I’m interrupting the plan I had for this series of articles on youth unemployment to look at the just-published White Paper ‘Skills for Jobs: Lifelong learning for Opportunity and Growth’, which is both topical and highly relevant to the argument that I have been developing.
The first point is that Labour should be worried. There is plenty that is wrong with this White Paper (see below) but there is also evidence of careful thinking about what has gone wrong with VET and employment policy in the past under both Labour and Conservative governments. Thinking about employment and VET policy is something that has been conspicuously lacking in Labour policymaking for some time now and if the Tories get this even half right, given the low expectations that the working class electorate have of any government, they will have gained a significant advantage.
So what do they appear to have got right in this White Paper? First, the government understands that vocational education needs to be integrated with economic development. Second, they can see that there needs to be more co-operation between providers than currently exists and that there also needs to be room for both local initiative and national direction. They also recognise the need to put Colleges of Further Education at the centre of provision and to weed out ‘cowboy’ private training providers. They propose to stand fast by their commitment to apprenticeships and the apprenticeship levy and to increase their reach into the SME sector. Without admitting it, they acknowledge the devastation to local funding and facilities caused by the austerity of the Cameron – Osborne years, but their proposals for restoring funding really amount to little more than putting back what was there before, inadequate though that was.
At the same time, there is much to criticise in this White Paper. Let’s start with the predominant role given to employers. There are plenty of bombastic declarations like this:
“ We will use the national system of employer-led standards that have been created for apprenticeships as a model and will ensure employers have a central role in designing and developing qualifications and training.”
This needs unpacking as there is quite a bit of history here. No sane person involved in vocational education would exclude employers from a very important role in the design and development of qualifications, but that is very different from giving them the whip hand. In the 1980s, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) were introduced which allowed employers to set qualifications based on narrow workplace tasks and little else. This happened because backward employers took control of these qualifications, and no-one, including sadly the trade unions, challenged them, despite the fact that few took these ‘qualifications’ (essentially certifying routine work practices) seriously.
The standards to which the quotation above refers to are a bit better than descriptions of workplace routines, but in the hands of poor employers, not much better. Employers in Britain are a very mixed bag and many of them have little or no interest in hiring qualified workers nor in training the workers that they have. It is folly to give such employers a decisive role in vocational education if you wish to improve the system. This is a piece of Tory dogma that Labour should challenge, and they should do so by advocating a system of local co-ordination in which local authorities, enterprise partnerships, central government and trade unions are also involved, to ensure that qualifications are of good quality and attuned not just to the current but to the future needs of local economies. It is ridiculous, if you plan to attract new employers to an area to allow those already there, of whatever quality, to dictate what qualifications there should be.
This brings me to the next point, that co-ordination, although approved of, is not enough. There is too much room for competing interests to determine local policies. First, employers have no incentive and there is no compulsion proposed to get them to co-operate with each other to provide good vocational education. Second, the further education colleges are completely independent of local authorities and are in practice under the influence of those employers who sit on the governing body as well as being in competition with other colleges in the area for students. Third, there is currently no structure to bring together local authorities, the government, trade unions, colleges and businesses to plan and co-ordinate local provision. This could be done by giving local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) wider representation and greater powers. While the role of employers on such partnerships must be substantial, it cannot dominate the decision-making of the body. More representative LEPs should also be given substantial resources to create jobs and infrastructure in their areas, making them bodies difficult for business to ignore.
They should be located at county or regional level. Some will complain that this sounds like excessive centralisation. However, I go back to a point that I made last week, that too much decentralisation can lead to excessive local rivalry and inefficient partitioning of resources. It is important that there is a degree of division of labour within an area but that also entails that there are good transport links to ensure that the assets available in a region are available to everyone in it and not just to those in cities or metropolitan areas. One of the most important criteria by which the such a body should be judged is its success in serving towns and rural areas by creating vocational education and job opportunities accessible to those who live in them. Responding to local pride and the desire of people to stay in their locality is important and Labour needs to recognise the pull of ‘local patriotism’ and to ensure that it can be expressed. At the same time, there are dangers that need to be guarded against. Some modest government representation will play an important role in ensuring that excessive localism and cronyism do not become dominant in the allocation of resources and jobs. Labour should be thinking in detail about what such structures should look like.
A third point is that the funding proposed is far too low. It will only reinstate cuts made over the years from 2010 and is just inadequate to the task of reviving local economies. However, it is not enough for Labour to be complaining about this, it needs to spell out in some detail in terms that local people can relate to, just how such resources will improve the lives of people in their localities. This is a job that labour controlled local authorities and local labour parties, working in conjunction with their local colleges and universities as well as local trade unions could be actively involved in by working up proposals to be put to the local enterprise partnership.
Particularly objectionable is the White Paper proposal to provide loans rather than grants to those who wish to engage in vocational education. If the government wants ‘payback’ they should seek it through individual taxation, not by burdening struggling families with yet more debt, particularly when there is no guarantee of a job at the end of an expensive course and a specialised qualification. Perhaps, if there were to be a job guarantee associated with a qualification there might be some justification for doing so, but since this is not the case, there is none.
Finally, not only is the government’s funding too niggardly, but the time scale for this to happen is far too extended. As I argued in the first of these articles, we need action now to prevent the further scarring of a whole generation through enforced idleness, poverty and lack of skills and qualifications. There is just no sense of immediacy in the government’s proposals and the Treasury seems to have been successful in curbing any ambition. It is all very well for Labour to complain about the delay, but the fact is that even if expenditure were available today, it takes years to create new skilled work. A ‘green new deal’ will rightly be seen as pie in the sky if it is not accompanied by a statement to its natural constituency of working people of what it would intend to do NOW if it were in power and how it proposes to pressurise the government into doing something now. Otherwise it will fail to carry conviction.
The Labour leadership may not be particularly interested in working on the details, but the party can draw on a wealth of expertise and experience within the party itself, the trade unions, colleges and universities to put together a proposal for the revival of vocational education that could put the Tories to shame. So far I’ve looked in vain for a response, let alone a detailed response, from Toby Perkins MP, who is supposed to be Labour’s shadow skills minister. What kind of opposition is this?