The reality is often rather more mundane. Photo: Getty Images
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Apprenticeships come with a price tag that politicians won't tell you about

In theory, apprenticeships are great news. But they pose great danger to adult education in England.

It doesn’t take more than a basic grasp of current affairs to work out that the Tories think apprenticeships are good. In fact, during the election campaign it would also have been difficult to miss the fact that Labour also thinks they’re good. And so do the Liberal Democrats.

In fact, Ukip thinks work-based learning is good as well, and so do the Greens. Every political party which mounted a serious challenge in England on May 7 was, and still is, dead keen on apprenticeships.

What does take a lot more than a basic grasp of current affairs to work out is the danger that the expansion of apprenticeships poses to adult education in England.

I do not for one minute suggest that an apprenticeship is a bad concept.

A proper apprenticeship, with a decent salary (not the pitiful £2.73 an hour apprentice minimum wage), government-approved framework, correct ratio of work to training time and a certificate at the end can be a passport to trades and salaries jobless graduates can only dream of.

But that’s not the main reason politicians like them.

Politicians like them because most people don’t really understand what they are, and when the electorate doesn’t understand something, it means the government can pretty much get away with anything it wants.

The main benefit of apprenticeships for any politician is the effect starts have on employment statistics. Every framework start can be dressed up as one fewer person in the queue at their local JobCentre, whether that’s actually the case or not.

And to that end, it doesn’t really matter to the Tories if the three million apprenticeship starts they have promised by 2020 lead to actual completions. As long as the number of apprenticeship starts continues to rise and unemployment continues to fall, the government will claim to be winning its argument.

But the establishment’s obsession with apprenticeships, that wonderful buzzword for growth and ambition which can inspire both but often provide neither, and their passion for creating more and more starts, could come at a terrible price.

Apprenticeships are funded from the adult skills budget, an element of Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) spending administered by the Skills Funding Agency, and funding for them is prioritised over everything else paid-for out of that pot.

Which would be fine if the amount of money going into it was rising. But it isn’t.

The government’s 2013 to 2015 skills funding statement tells us that in the 2013/14 academic year, the baseline adult skills budget stood at £2,467,875,000. In 2014/15, it was expected to fall to £2,258,311,000. This year, it has been set at £2,008,528,000.

It’s not hard to work out that rising learner numbers versus falling funding levels is going to lead to a certain amount of pressure.

But that pressure won’t be on apprenticeships funding, which is being prioritised. That pressure will be on the rest of the further education (FE) sector, and I’d be surprised if anyone in power was taking that remotely seriously right now.

Adult skills funding has been cut by 35 per cent since 2009.

But unless you earn your money in or on behalf of that sector, or have some other connection, I doubt you’d know that.

These cuts have been targeted in this area because the FE sector is relatively easy for the government to ignore.

As a general rule, MPs don’t send their children to FE colleges. Nor do journalists. Or policy wonks. It is not a sector renowned for educating high society or training the Westminster elite.

Nor is it a sector whose screams of panic every time another huge axe falls on budgets are heard and amplified by the mainstream media.

If a 35 per cent cut had fallen on the schools sector, there would be hell to pay.

But every year, the FE sector is told to sit down and shut up as millions of pounds are stripped from its budgets.

Sector organisations are relentless in their attempts to translate the blind panic behind the scenes in colleges up and down England.

The Association of Colleges has warned that continued cuts could “decimate” adult education by 2020, while the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has said the onslaught of reductions in funding could cause “crippling skills gaps and shortages”.

The damage of persistent cuts can already be seen up and down the country, but most people aren’t looking hard enough to see it.

The FE commissioner, who visits struggling colleges when Ofsted has rated them as “inadequate” or when the government isn’t happy with the state of their finances, has been sent in to at least 18 colleges and learning providers, and BIS has admitted there is no end to his role in sight.

Even the man in charge of funding adult learning, Skills Funding Agency chief executive Peter Lauener, admitted in December that his organisation had concerns for the “growing number of colleges” facing financial challenges.

The FE sector cannot continue to shoulder its disproportionate share of the burden of austerity. The economic case for protecting its funding could not be clearer, but is being ignored for the sake of short-term savings.

The new business secretary Sajid Javid should not be fooled into thinking ambitious pledges of millions of apprenticeships will solve the woes of a sector on the brink of annihilation. Apprenticeships will never replace our adult education system once it is gone.

If Javid fails to listen to the desperate pleas of the institutions responsible for training and re-training some of the most vulnerable in society, giving those failed by a struggling schools system a second chance when they have nowhere else to turn, giving those who decide later in life that they want another go, then adult education will be dead within a decade.

Freddie Whittaker is a journalist at FEWeek and Schools Week - he tweets as @FCDWhittaker.

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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