Well if we wanted to live in “interesting times” we have them right now by the bucketful – a lame duck government, a non-existent opposition and seemingly no Brexit plan.
No-one can foresee where we will be in six months time but it’s a certainty we will have a new PM and a new cabinet. We may have had a General Election. We may have not. In any case the policy drivers and “pet projects” of the current Government will be a thing of the past, so some of the things that certainly I have taken for granted as policy certainties may not be. Specifically, we have to ask how much traction George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” will have without him as a driving force?
Is David Cameron’s “Life Chances” policy initiative dead in the water? Where does Brexit leave the 3 million Apprenticeships target and the Apprenticeship Levy? How will economically depressed areas and communities cope without the considerable support of the European Social Fund? What impact can we expect Brexit to have on the economy and what will be the immediate impact on employment numbers and the UK’s skills strategy?
The unknowns are seemingly endless but what we have assurance upon is that there will be a Budget before the end of the year. Whether it’s a budget or an Autumn Statement is really semantics – the fact is that the new Chancellor will have to make spending choices that are likely to reflect a recession or at least a “readjustment”.
Whilst we are in a grim place we are also masters/mistresses of our own destiny if we take the opportunity to lobby now for the things that are really important to us and the people we work for. I have seen calls for a National Government. I don’t think that’s an absurd idea but it’s highly unlikely. The idea of unity is however a compelling one and we should be putting forward a unified voice to Government across the Employability and Skills sectors on the issues that matter. Here’s my personal starter for ten (nine really but with a personal bugbear at number 10):
Replace ESF programme funding: Communities across the UK have become reliant upon ESF and we shouldn’t forget the vast amount of regeneration that has been enabled by European funds. We can’t just turn the tap off on these areas. Our sector must make a unified case for the retention of these funds, rebranded if necessary as UKSF, push for the ring-fencing of support funds for needier areas and communities, and demand an early supportive statement from Government on its intentions. The immediate priority is to ensure that the £725m due to be delivered to the UK by March 2018 is on the table in Brussels as a non-negotiable.
Value and promote our community-based delivery: In times of uncertainty community delivery becomes even more vital in reaching those excluded communities and residents that are too often over-looked. We need to understand “what works” and to support these VCSE organisations that are on the ground to collaborate, learn from each other, scale and prosper. Now is the time for an inclusive delivery system – one that is collaborative, supportive and aligned – and that means funders too.
Take this opportunity to create a national youth employment and skills strategy: It’s surely a “no-brainer”? We need one.
At the AELP Conference this week Nick Boles, Minister for Skills pledged an “absolute commitment to Apprenticeships and Skills development.” It is commensurate on us, the sector, to guide the Government on what this means in really practical terms. If there is to be the, very likely, restriction on labour movement this means there will be more jobs (which will require the requisite skills development) for young people in the job areas that traditionally they have favoured least – such as Health, Care and Hospitality.
We have to make entry level jobs in these sectors more appealing to jobseekers with a clear development trajectory that will assure young people and their parents of the potential for advancement opportunities. This guidance needs to start early (upper Primary), in schools with schools promoting academic and vocational pathways with “parity of opportunity” (as Mark Dawe, CEO at AELP has described it).
Let’s not forget either that it’s not all about Apprenticeship. We need more route ways for young people modelled on programmes like Future Jobs Fund, and Intermediate Labour Markets (ILMs) which still exist in Wales and which Liverpool city region has readopted.
Press for the continuity of the Traineeship programme: There are still 1m NEETs, near enough. One million reasons to get on side with the Traineeship programme. Those of us who have worked with NEETs generally see the programme’s profound value. It’s really a misnomer to think of it as a pre-apprenticeship programme. It’s a replacement for E2E, acknowledging that many young people leave school demotivated and unfocussed.
Until we’ve resolved whatever it is in school that leads these young people to “turn off” we need a programme that helps them get on track and into employment, training or both. The fact Traineeship has been hived off in to the Adult Skills Budget and devolved to the LEPs is an irrelevance. Wherever the funding sits it is a provision that is badly needed
Ensure SME Apprenticeship opportunities are not missed in the “Levy Melee”: The vast majority of apprenticeship opportunities exist, or could exist, within SMEs. Every encouragement must be given to smaller organisations to deliver apprenticeships. Bearing in mind that even a 1/10 of cost contribution may be too much for some SMEs we should be pushing for even bigger government contributions if this is how SMEs are to be engaged.
Don’t lose sight of the Work and Health programme: The bidding process is already delayed. We have to support DWP to continue to prioritise the needs of people with multiple challenges. The Work Programme didn’t serve ESA clients well and the objectives of the new programme remain as essential as they were pre-Brexit.
Important too will be ensuring that when the bidding round does recommence it is not truncated. If the Work and Health programme is to support the clients it purports to want to, adequate time must be allowed for aspirant “primes” to build really robust supply chains of organisations working “on the ground”.
The Learning and Work Institute has made a solid case arguing that more funding is needed to meet the Government’s objective of halving the disability employment gap saying that “on current trends this will take 200 years”.
There’s an argument then for increasing funding for the Work and Health programme (from funding that is no longer going to the EU – some of that £350m per week?) and aligning this with the UK replacement to the ESF programme.
But its also about getting all our practical “ducks in a row” and bringing health, housing, employers, transport and providers on board. Permitted work options need to be explored and utilised more, and reassurances given to customers about benefits topping up work income. People shouldn’t be scared to take up employment.
Prioritise progression and work place development beyond Apprenticeships: The devolved Adult Education budget should be utilised to help people get out of working poverty. Any Skills Strategy should have at its heart the objective that everyone, irrespective of age, is skilled up to meet the skills their locality needs and trained to a level that enables them to access good, sustained employment.
And let us be very clear on the context here. This week we learned that there are 200,000 more children living in poverty than last year. Brexit or no this is a shameful fact.
Step up our involvement with the devolution agenda and with the LEPs: Jo Casebourne at the Institute of Government has been quick to point out this week that there have already been calls for more powers to be devolved to local areas once powers start to return from Europe. Given that many voters appear to have been protesting against Westminster government this would seem to indicate that voters support a devolved model.
Jo quotes the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE)who have said that ‘if the lesson of the campaign is that large swathes of the population are detached from the political process, the answer is not to further concentrate power in Whitehall’, and have urged councils to ‘redouble’ their devolution efforts.
And lastly a personal plea!
Encourage our Government ministers to get their eyes back on the ball: Senior and middle-ranking ministers have been allowed the luxury of many months campaigning on the Referendum and several are now involving themselves in leadership bids. We need them back in their offices, leading their teams and concentrating on their portfolios. Their departments need leadership and unified objectives, just as does the country and our sector.
Fran Parry is an independent consultant. Her views are her own. You can contact her at Bright Sparks Consulting – [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @francesparry