Labour’s Vocational Education Policy

A New Beginning?

Dave Gardner

This journal has for some time bemoaned the Labour Party’s lack of interest in a matter of the first concern to working people, vocational education and training (VET). In Robert Halfon MP on the other hand, the Tories have a Minister of State responsible for VET who is exceptionally knowledgeable about and committed to VET. Labour does not have a shadow with anything like this degree of commitment and knowledge. However, in his budget statement Jeremy Hunt failed to mention the underfunded Further Education colleges which undertake the bulk of vocational education in the UK. As Labour itself points out, by 2024-5 funding for FE colleges will still be 10% below the level available in 2010. This is a fair point, but Labour is not committing even to funding to restore this level of resource. As this month’s Labour Affairs editorial points out, Labour is committed to sticking to the Tories’ spending plans.

The Labour Party have now started to come up with some policies and one of these concerns education, including VET. Readers of this journal will recall how central we regard VET policy to the revival of communities damaged by years of economic decline, so it is worthwhile looking in detail at what Labour currently have to offer. See:

Labour have now published a set of educational recommendations: “Learning and skills for economic recovery, social cohesion and a more equal Britain”.[1] This document shows some evidence of thinking about vocational education, but falls far short of what is required, apart from some minor but welcome commitments such as restoring the Education Maintenance  Allowance for young people. This lack of substance is hardly surprising. Although useful progress can be made through organisational changes such as modifying incentives for firms subject to the apprenticeship levy and bringing about a better alignment between national, regional and local training policy, it remains the case that apprenticeship is still a very small proportion of VET provision and the bulk of that work has still to take place with the involvement of FE colleges, including the off-the-job element in apprenticeships. The educational inspectorate have just published a report indicating just how much better FE colleges are than private providers in supporting apprenticeship training, showing that 91% of College provision is good or better, while this is only true of 65% of  independent providers, many of whom are inadequate. Something like one third of apprentices do not complete their programmes. Figures like this suggest that the FE colleges should be playing the major role in running apprenticeship programmes, but the Labour Party is not proposing this. It is fine proposing greater co-ordination and co-operation in localities but this has been  tried before without too much success. It’s not clear how Labour would address past failures. There needs to be an authoritative body with funding and the power to break deadlocks and bring about agreement between different parties. This is made easier if there is not so much competition between training institutions such that someone feels threatened by any proposed change. Labour has nothing to say about removing the excessive competition that currently exists that leads to poor quality provision, reduplication and the digging in of vested interests.

There are useful proposals for incentivising more small and medium sized firms (SMEs) to take on more apprentices through generous tax credits and there are also proposals for the much-needed revival of a careers service for young people, which borrows heavily from the much better provision available in Scotland, although Labour dare not acknowledge this. However, the main issue is that vocational education provision in general and FE colleges in particular are under resourced and they will not be able to contribute to a revival of local or regional economies until they are much better funded and are looked on more favourably as established providers of quality. In the apprenticeship training world, there is a market in which cost-cutting cowboys can make easy money providing poor support, leaving young people in the lurch. This has to stop. To take just one example, FE lecturers are more poorly paid than schoolteachers and often more poorly paid than workers in the businesses that they are preparing young people to enter. Consequently there are big recruitment problems in getting lecturers in, for example, digital industries and construction. 

The apprenticeship levy is self-funding, so reforms that remove perverse incentives to supply unnecessary management qualifications rather than apprenticeships for young people are needed. Large firms have the resources to support apprentices both administratively and in other ways, but they very often fail to do so. SMEs with far fewer resources, lacking experience in providing apprenticeships and daunted by the risks that may follow  a leap into the unknown are even less likely to take on apprentices without proper support. This support involves help and advice with administration, and training within the firm to provide teaching and welfare support for young people who often have not encountered the world of work before and find it bewildering and intimidating. This is just the kind of support that well-funded FE colleges are capable of providing.

The Labour Party has committed itself to a Tory austerity budget and if it takes power in 2024 it will have to implement the spending cuts element of the budget that the Chancellor has back loaded to the end of this parliamentary term. Improvements in vocational education and careers guidance are impossible to make without greatly increased funding. It is of little value producing policies that tinker round the edges of problems, identifying perverse incentives, administrative shortcomings and co-ordination problems without also providing the resources to address the lack of capacity in the system. Labour is not even proposing to increase funding to the levels of 2010. 

Whatever economists may say about the matter, expenditure on vocational education and careers guidance and advice is clearly an investment in the future of the country, although not sufficient by itself to regenerate the neglected provinces of England and Wales. But little can anyway be done for the revival of the country without a very hefty increase in the VET budget. If money is committed to providing the resources for growth, then voters will understand, particularly in those areas that stand to benefit. Economic growth, less crime, better health and happier neighbourhoods are all benefits that can flow from wise investment in vocational education. Good vocational education, if linked to an economic policy that incentivises the revival of communities and encourages investment will pay for itself over and over again. If Labour sticks to Tory spending proposals, then there will not be a step change in the quality of vocational education in England and Wales and Labour will struggle to attract back voters who have felt neglected by the party in the past.


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