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    As a south London boy but not quite with the ‘grime’ accent to match, I had to mind my h’s during the party conference season. At Labour, it was okay to refer to social equality or mobility but some eyebrows were raised if I referred to equality at the Conservatives. Social justice put me on safer ground in Manchester and I’ll have my old bottle of Tippex ready according to where I send further copies of AELP’s recent submission on social mobility/equality/justice.

    Our paper did seem to be something of a hit though with frontbenchers of either party and some of the newer intake of MPs that we were meeting for the first time. It was timely too because at Brighton, a common theme from Labour’s frontbench education team was improving education and skills opportunities for the ‘other 50%’.  There were several fringe events on apprenticeships and skills at both conferences, including one where young apprentices from Heathrow, the Battersea Power Station redevelopment and KPMG, made a powerful impact on the audience, especially with delegates not well versed in the subject. In fact, it was so inspiring that I’m putting one of them forward for a vacancy on the DfE’s apprenticeship stakeholder board.

    It was good to hear shadow skills spokesperson Gordon Marsden spend 90 minutes in a breakfast fringe meeting taking questions on the apprenticeship and T level reforms. 

    He first went through his immediate concerns which were: the 3 million target, the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) lacking a permanent chief executive, only 15% of those receiving apprenticeship offers from levy payers being aged 16 to 18 and also fewer opportunities for 19 to 24s.  He called the non-levy ITT ‘a fiasco’ and accused the government of being in a ‘complete dither’ over careers guidance in schools since 2010.  The Labour frontbencher implied that the government needed to get a firm grip on how degree apprenticeships were being defined and implemented because he found differing understandings around the country.

    Gordon’s overall viewpoint was encouraging because as the first set of official post-levy start numbers shows, we do need to get the balance right under a finite budget between apprenticeship opportunities for young people and existing adult members of the workforce as well as ensuring that there are enough opportunities available in non-levy paying employers across the country. Employers can’t be blamed for what has happened since May; as we predicted, the design of the apprenticeship reforms has understandably driven the employer behaviours we have observed and this is why the CBI and AELP are calling for an urgent review.


    On the proposed Institutes of Technology, Labour were sceptical of millions of pounds’ worth of capital funding being poured into ‘shiny new buildings’.  Gordon Marsden expressed serious concern about the 15 routes under the technical education reforms, especially the omission of retail, visitor economy and social care.  Referring to shadow education secretary Angela Rayner’s former career as a carer, trends in demographics and the need for more carers, he said that it didn’t matter whether you were a dustman or a duke, everyone needed quality care at the end of their life.  In answer to my question, he later added that this and the visitor economy presented a good reason why apprenticeships should start at level 2, providing that there is a clear commitment to progression.  He was also determined to hold the government to account on the fall in the number of traineeships. It was also good to hear Angela Rayner say in her speech, “Workplace education meant we had the chance to learn more and earn more.  Other people need that chance.  So, our National Education Service will be lifelong, providing for people at every stage of their life.”  Throughout the conference, I engaged in discussions with Angela Rayner and other leading Labour MPs, with the MPs particularly interested in the recommendations in AELP’s social mobility paper.

    Skills minister Anne Milton was characteristically frank at the Conservative party conference roundtables and fringe meetings about her take on the apprenticeship reforms. 

    She may of course been privy to the disastrous start numbers that have just been published. Four months into the job, she said that she was hearing things for the first time from employers and stakeholders at the conference about both the levy’s impact and the new standards.  The minister went as far as to say that she was hearing two different stories from her civil servants and stakeholders despite all of the concerns which have been expressed.  She added that she was now gathering an informal group of people to advise her.

    Just like Brighton, the theme of social mobility figured strongly in the discussions in Manchester and Anne Milton assured me that apprenticeships at level 2 and 3 represented ‘the pipeline’ to progression and that she would keep on saying this.  The minister was presented with a copy of our social mobility paper – just in case the copy that had been sent to her private office hadn’t been passed on to her!  She made some interesting observations about the levy’s impact in her Guildford constituency where 97% of employers were non-levy paying SMEs.  Some were pressing for ‘shorter courses’ for their apprenticeship programmes, presumably a reference to the 1-year minimum duration rule, and she promised that she would look at this.  On the question of getting more disadvantaged young people into apprenticeships, the minister wanted to see a system that could take a risk with this because ‘it’s a risk worth taking’.  However she pointed out that this would impact on programme completion rates and as a minister, she would have to take flak for it.  Referring to next month’s expected publication of a new careers strategy, the minister said that the issue of information, advice and guidance was ‘really complicated’ and she had asked officials to make sure that the new strategy would be easily understood by parents and young people.

    Several new Conservative MPs were at the conference and they understood our messages on the need to protect apprenticeship opportunities among non-levy paying employers in their constituencies.

    The 61% drop of starts does not equate to a ‘shutdown’ (© Skepta) but it’s among SMEs where the biggest falls have taken place. If Justine Greening and Anne Milton are serious about social justice/mobility, they need to take the urgent action that we are calling for.

    Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers  

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