Is the FE and skills sector really going to be ‘supercharged’ by the current government or a new government after the expected general election? For all the positive noises made at the three main party conferences over the past month, it is a reasonable question to ask.
We still don’t know if we are going to leave the EU with a deal. If there is no deal, a pre-election Budget or the 3-year spending round which the Chancellor has previously promised may be much less generous than the ‘end of austerity’ package originally envisaged. So far the colleges have been granted a very modest, albeit welcome, settlement for mainstream FE funding but SME employers are still waiting for something to be done about the increasingly severe shortage of non-levy apprenticeship funding. The Prime Minister promised in early July that apprenticeships will be “properly funded” and we will hold him and the government to it. What AELP did have confirmed for us at the Conservative conference in Manchester was that the DfE at the highest levels know that this is the most pressing issue for apprenticeships right now.
At the Labour conference fringe meetings in Brighton, we heard shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden regularly refer to the shortage of non-levy funding, having raised it in Parliament before the conference season started. It was also very encouraging for him to say twice that independent training providers “are crucial in the system” and at a session on Labour’s lifelong learning commission, Gordon received backing on this point from the UCU representative on the commission. This is very important because some in the ITP community fear that a Jeremy Corbyn-led government might exclude them from future contract awards, although this must be seen against the fact that it would be difficult to stop employers exercising choice over their preferred apprenticeship provider under the levy system while the mayoral combined authorities won’t want their hands tied on their procurement of devolved programmes as they search for more value for money.
On the theme of devolution, the West Midlands elected mayor Andy Street was touring the fringes in Manchester and there is no doubt that he is enormously influential within ministerial circles. AELP heard Mr Street say that sorting out skills was his biggest long-term priority. He also gathered there the M9 Group of elected mayors to call for further devolved powers and the bid will almost certainly include all post-16 FE and skills budgets. Gordon Marsden makes no secret that he is a fan of devolution too, so it will be interesting to see if the general election manifestos are in agreement on the direction of travel in this regard.
In addition to Labour, the Liberal Democrats are also conducting a review under Layla Moran on lifelong learning and I was at Bournemouth to speak at two of their fringe events on skills and apprenticeships. The party has published a generally excellent policy paper but there are a couple of areas where we disagree. Firstly the Lib Dems are not alone in calling for the apprenticeship levy to be replaced by a wider training levy. Our view is that if the levy pot is running dry, then there is clearly a large demand for the programme from employers that should be met and not diluted by demand for other programmes.
There is a subtle change in the call for flexibility though – more and more employers are accepting that the levy will remain for apprenticeships only but want to see flexibility introduced in areas such as the 20% off-the-job training rule. Even in the T Level development, we are seeing statements of how important on-the-job training is. In some sectors much of the current off-the-job training would be far more powerful on the job – and it is this flexibility, standard by standard, that AELP has long been calling for.
If the government isn’t ready to restore a guaranteed annual budget for SME apprenticeships of £1.5bn, then any unused levy funding must be allocated to smaller businesses. Remember that the government is actually relying on levy payers to not spend 50% of the levy in order to fund non-levy employers. This isn’t happening anymore and because of the success of apprenticeships, the problem now is that there is not nearly enough funding available.
And without a standalone non-levy budget, any government will be forced to make what the DfE permanent secretary has called ‘hard choices’ to make apprenticeship funding sustainable over the long term. AELP strongly supports the introduction of degree apprenticeships and the Commons education committee chair Robert Halfon has got his wish that rocket boosters have been placed under them, judging by their growing popularity within the Russell Group institutions as well as in the pace-setting modern universities. Our latest policy lines document on apprenticeships (http://bit.ly/2ksAIir) proposes that higher and degree level apprenticeships should be funded through the HE loans system as we are seeing a shift from full-time programmes to apprenticeships. The 75,000 higher and degree starts this year alone will require some £615m funding per year for the next two years and these numbers are like to grow significantly.
Our second quibble with the Lib Dems, and not just with them, is the view that apprenticeships should start at level 3. It also strikes at the heart of what my general conclusion about the party conference season is, namely that we are still not hearing enough from the three main parties on what they will do for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ of people who don’t go to university. We certainly heard them talk about FE and skills to a degree that I probably haven’t heard in my 26 years in the sector, but if the politicians want more young people to progress through to, and achieve, level 3, we will have to keep emphasising that the only way this will be achieved is to have a solid base of level 2 apprenticeships, traineeships and study programmes. This is because at least 40% of school leavers need this step due to poor success in school and there is no way they can leap to a level 3 without support from our sector. Those learners, many of whom have never achieved anything or received a certificate before, also deserve to be recognised for achieving this step at level 2. Therefore, the idea of extending a level 3 programme by a year, with the first bit being level 2 is a fundamentally flawed concept.
Throw in what I said to Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan in Manchester, which is a need to embed digital skills within every apprenticeship standard alongside English and maths for those apprentices that need support in these subjects, then real action at level 2 is what is should be at the centre of any election manifesto chapter on education and skills.
Mark Dawe is Chief Executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers