A route-map to Labour’s revolution in apprenticeships

Britain faces a stark choice: a race to the bottom in skills and wages or a race for the top in the demanding 21st century economy.

Fifty years ago, only 20% of young people left school with any qualifications at all.  Now the figure is 90%. Forty years ago, less than 8% of young people went on to university. Now the figure is nearer 50%. These are great, progressive achievements. But the success we have won for some young people should not blind us to the continuing challenges of others.

A year ago the Labour leader Ed Miliband highlighted the plight of the "forgotten 50%" of young people who do not go to university. He set up a Skills Taskforce, of which I am the independent chair, to suggest practical, deliverable solutions for these young people. Last month, in the first of three final reports, the Taskforce called on Labour to embark on a national mission to double the number of high quality apprenticeships.

Less than one in 10 employers offer apprenticeships in England, compared to three or four times that number in our main European competitors. And while the UK has are some exceptional apprenticeships – such as those at Rolls Royce, Siemens, Heathrow Airport and Transport for London – much of the recent increase has been in apprenticeships that would not be recognised in these countries. Apprenticeships should be a high quality training route into work for young people, but a shocking 70% of apprentices are existing employees, up from 48% in 2007, and 94% of these apprentices are over 25 years old. A fifth of apprenticeships last for less than six months and 20% of all apprentices report receiving no training at all.

This is bad for business and for the economy. Many employers say they cannot get the skills they need to succeed and in some sectors the lack of training has led to severe skills shortages. Most importantly, the lack of good training and work opportunities caps aspiration and prevents young people from fulfilling their potential.

The Skills Taskforce makes a simple proposition: it offers employers a 'something-for-something' deal.  Employers should be given more control over skills funding and standards, and in return should be asked to create more high quality apprenticeships in their sectors and supply chains.

Nearly half of employers say that the prospect of trained staff being poached by rival firms deters them from training employees. So the Taskforce also recommends asking business what powers they need to ensure they can deliver the expansion in apprenticeships we need to rebuild the economy, such as the power to introduce levies or training requirements. It should then be up to employers, working with other stakeholders at sector level, which of these powers they will use. The public sector can and should take a lead, through both its own provision – the current provision of apprenticeships in the public sector is unacceptable – and driving behaviour through procurement.

If this sounds ambitious, it should. If it sounds impossible: it is not. Continental systems, including the German and Austrian education and training systems, already do it. The challenges are not ones of principle, but of will, and the prize is considerable.

At the Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband took on the challenge to double the number of high quality apprenticeships and said he would give employers the power to call time on free-riding by competitors who do not train. Labour also committed to our recommendations to ensure that apprenticeships are gold standard qualifications that employers and young people can trust: Level 3 or above and lasting at least two years. 

This is a good start to a major transformational task. Britain faces a stark choice: a race to the bottom in skills and wages or a race for the top in the demanding 21st century economy. Britain must not join the race to the bottom. Our goal is to transform the opportunities available to young people through efforts to develop a high skill, high productivity economy.

Chris Husbands is the director of the Institute for Education and chair of Labour’s Skills Taskforce.

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.