From education to employment

General Election 2024: Lots of Unknowns, but Glimmers of Hope 

Michael Lemin

With only one week to go until the country goes to the polls, Michael Lemin, Head of Policy at the education charity and awarding organisation NCFE, takes a closer look at what some of the parties are promising (and what they aren’t) when it comes to further education and skills.  

With any new government, there’s always a lot of focus on the first 100 days. What are the early victories that will set the tone for the rest of the time in office? 

While usually I’m fueled with anticipation and excitement the week before a general election, this time it feels different. After reading through all the political manifestos, my overriding emotion is, can we not be a little more aspirational? 

The elephant in the room of course is that none of the main parties look set to reverse planned cuts to unprotected public services, which includes further education. With Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, commenting that Labour’s plans leave them “literally no room” for more spending, it’s difficult to get overly excited.  

But despite the challenges, I did see some reasons for optimism in the manifestos and there are also some areas where a new government could have an immediate impact without having to check under the couch cushions for spare change.  

Pausing the qualification review 

If it is to be a Labour government on July the 5th, one of those first 100 days actions should be to pause the current Level 3 reforms.  

If the next Government continues with the current defunding plans, they risk an increase in young people not in education, employment or training (NEET), as many learners will not have a suitable programme in which to enroll.  

Politically speaking, it is a banana skin that can be avoided by pausing the planned defunding and taking time for a nuanced review.  The Association of Colleges have published an excellent paper which explains the issues and makes some very sensible recommendations for the next Government.  

At the time of writing, Labour has an impressive poll lead. While pausing the review did not make it into their manifesto, that is not necessarily cause for concern. It’s an important but niche issue, so not necessarily a vote winner that belongs in a manifesto, and Labour has previously committed to pausing the review. The timing of the election allows time to act before the potential impacts of defunding take hold.    

Changes to curriculum and assessment 

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have promised changes to schools, including reviewing the current curriculum and assessment methods. One area NCFE has campaigned on for some time now is reforming Progress 8.  

As it stands, schools are under pressure to deliver against the Progress 8 metric which over-emphasises academic achievement, narrowing the curriculum and pushing technical qualifications down the priority list.  

The maximum grade available to vocational learners studying technical awards is 8.5 (vs. GCSE 9) reducing the overall performance point potential for these subjects over their academic alternatives. 

Labour has pledged to “update” the Progress 8 accountability measures by holding schools to account for performance in at least one creative or vocational subject. This would be better for the learners as they approach post-16 education where the switch from academic to technical education is stark.  

They’ve also committed to reviewing the assessment system to ensure it’s more suitable for everyone – something we’ve been talking about and investigating for a while now through NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund.  

Skills devolution 

One of the more ambitious and eye-catching skills policies was in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto. If we ignore how it will be paid for momentarily, the proposal to give every adult at least £5,000 for training is the ultimate form of devolution – devolving to the individual. 

The lifelong skills grant is an old pledge from 2019 and where they were once promising £10,000 for every adult to spend on education and training, this has now halved. However, it is still good to see some ambition to stimulate adult learning. 

The Liberal Democrats had some other eye-catching commitments for further education and skills than most parties, such as increasing college funding per pupil above the yearly rate of inflation and reviewing FE funding to see whether colleges could be exempted from VAT. 


There was a headline-grabbing pledge from the Conservative Party about creating 100,000 more apprenticeships by 2029 if they win the general election.  

What’s missing here though is that in 2015 there were 509,400 apprenticeships starts, compared to 337,100 last year. Even with an extra 100,000, we’re still behind where we were almost a decade ago.   

Meanwhile, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to reform the apprenticeship levy so it can be spent on other forms of training. This has long been an ask of large, levy-paying employers, the key to successful implementation will be on the policy levers used to ensure that there are still enough apprenticeships on offer, particularly for young people, who have seen opportunities to engage in apprenticeships dry up over the last decade.  

What was missing? 

No party seemingly has a credible plan about recruitment and retention, whether that’s in schools, colleges or early years settings. As I’ve already mentioned, with those commitments to cuts to unprotected budgets it’s hard to see how things are going to change if we do get a new government. 

But the biggest gap from all the parties is not addressing the root cause of the greatest challenge in society – child poverty. Our schools and colleges have become the first line of the welfare state, our educators have become social workers as well as teachers. This is not a sustainable model, and the system is already creaking.  

This is not an easy time for any new government. The economy is not in a strong position, and there are fundamental and multifaceted problems to solve. We must, perhaps, accept the political reality that investment is hard to come by, but there is only so much that can be achieved without funding behind any policy.  

Despite this, there are glimmers of hope in some of the proposals we can see across the manifestos, and regardless of who holds the keys to 10 Downing Street on 5 July, the FE and skills sector stands ready to work with them. 

By Michael Lemin, Head of Policy at NCFE

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