Manifesto Check: ‘Labour’s skills policy is a disappointing muddle’

Miliband’s skills policy: a pathway to a career, or a dead end? Philip Toscano/PA Wire

Hilary Steedman, London School of Economics and Political Science

Labour’s election manifesto promises four initiatives in the area of skills and apprenticeships; the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, the Apprenticeship Guarantee, the Youth Allowance, and the Technical Baccalaureate. It is not clear whether the party’s priority is to cut the benefits bill and take young people off the unemployment register, or to ensure that all young people gain the skills and experience they need to make the transition to a job with a future. Ultimately, Labour’s skills policy is a disappointing muddle.

The Compulsory Jobs Guarantee would replace benefits with a paid “starter job for every young person unemployed for over a year, a job which they will have to take or lose benefits”. A “starter job” – whatever that may be – does not equip a young person with the skills needed to stay and progress in employment. A low-level, service-sector job is of little use to a young unemployed graduate looking for a foothold in the profession or occupation for which they have studied. Neither is it a solution for a young person, with a history of poor labour market attachment, who requires support and mentoring which cannot be provided by the workplace alone.

But read to the end of Labour’s skills policy announcements and – almost as an afterthought – there is a different deal for 18 to 21-year-olds. Instead of receiving out of work benefits, this group will have access to a Youth Allowance – possibly means-tested – which is dependent on receipt of training.

That leaves the Apprenticeship Guarantee. Unlike the very specific guarantee incorporated in the last Labour government’s Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 and ditched by the coalition, this policy promises only “an apprenticeship to every school leaver who gets the grades”. It does not specify what grades. If we are not told the conditions, we cannot judge if it is a promise worth having.

Removing the bottom rungs

For an 18 to 21-year-old in training, who is not on benefits (but possibly receiving a Youth Allowance) there is no obvious ladder that would enable them to access the promise of an apprenticeship. For instance, it is not clear if they will have the opportunity to get “the grades” – whatever they may be – through a traineeship or similar stepping stone to a full apprenticeship. Likewise, we cannot tell from Labour’s manifesto whether the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee will form part of a pathway, or a dead end.

We must applaud Labour’s commitment to apprenticeships with real value, which are regarded as equivalent to A-level, and can lead to degree-level study in the form of a Technical Degree. But in making these promises, Labour has kicked away the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity to gain a worthwhile occupational skill, which all young people should be able to access.

Labour will continue the coalition government’s policy of giving employers more control over apprenticeship funding and standards. This is sensible, but not without its challenges. Small employers, who provide the most apprenticeship places, have made it clear that they do not want control over funding and the increased complex accountability that entails.

Labour will use changes to government funding rules to try to wean English employers away from their preference for training their own older employees and calling them apprentices, rather than taking on young people. This will be difficult, but – as the Business, Innovation and Skills Commons Select Committee has shown – will provide better value for for government money. If Labour could join their policies up and make some bolder promises on apprenticeships, we could look forward to benefits for the country and for all young people.

Claudia Hupkau, Research Associate at London School of Economics and Political Science

In its manifesto, Labour proposes a Technical Baccalaureate – but actually, this already exists. It was announced in 2013 by the Department for Education and then-Skills Minister Mathew Hancock. But rather than being a separate qualification it was designed as a measure to use in performance tables.

Pupils who pursue certain high-quality vocational courses recognised by employers, study Maths at level 3 (for instance, as an AS or A level), and do an “extended project” are considered as doing a “technical baccalaureate” for performance table purposes. The aim of this initiative was to provide an incentive for schools to encourage their bright students to choose vocational routes.

Labour’s plan is to institutionalise the Technical Baccalaureate as an actual award. Having a single award would help to simplify the vocational education landscape, and make it easier for the qualification to gain currency. Under the current arrangements, 230 technical-level qualifications are recognised as Technical Baccalaureates.

This gives schools and vocational education providers flexibility in terms of the courses they offer to their students, and many well-established and -recognised qualifications are included in the list. But it does not deal with the problem that students wishing to pursue an alternative to A-levels are faced with hundreds of possible qualifications, which they often have little information about. The information problem is compounded by the uncertainty as to whether these qualifications will be as highly regarded by employers or universities as A-levels.

Labour’s proposal could help simplify the vocational education landscape by reducing the number of qualifications to choose from, which would be beneficial for students and employers alike. But the manifesto lacks detail as to how exactly this would be implemented. One of the hallmarks of the English vocational education system is that it is extremely complex, and many previous attempts at simplifying it have resulted in ever more bureaucracy and perverse incentives for education providers and employers.

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