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.
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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories