Last Tuesday, whilst Parliament and the media were preoccupied by the government’s announcement that it would be backing a new runway at Heathrow, the Department for Education quietly slipped out a U-turn on apprenticeships funding cuts.
The U-turn mitigates some of the worst effects of the funding cuts that were first published back in August. These would have cut funding for 16-18 year old apprentices up to 50 per cent in deprived areas such as my constituency of Tottenham.
There is a further education college in every single constituency and the government has pledged to create 3m apprenticeships by 2020 at every possible opportunity. So why is it only because of a backbench campaign that Parliament will have the opportunity to debate these cuts for the first time on Tuesday?
The debate is crucial, because the U-turn is not enough. Nine of the ten most popular apprenticeships still face cuts ranging from 14 per cent to 51 per cent. A conservative estimate suggests average cuts of around 35 per cent will kick in next spring. My local further education college faces 37 per cent cuts in funding for 16-18 year old construction apprentices together with cuts for engineering apprenticeships of 43 per cent.
This government’s apparent commitment to social mobility and supporting those from disadvantaged backgrounds doesn’t look very robust in light of such facts. Indeed, the additional funding provided to support disadvantaged areas was set to be totally scrapped, and has now only been guaranteed for one year.
Last week, the Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening told Parliament that “apprenticeships transform lives and are vital in making this a country that works for everyone”. As a former Skills Minister I could not agree more, but in trying to push through cuts of up to 50 per cent without any form of parliamentary scrutiny, this government’s actions entirely contradict its rhetoric. And it will be young people in deprived areas who pay the price.
Youth unemployment already stands at 14 per cent. We are doing worse than Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and four times as badly as Germany in terms of the proportion of 16-24 year olds who are not in education, employment or training. The Treasury, the UK Commission on Employment and Skills, the Science and Technology Select Committee and businesses across all sectors of our economy are united in their belief that we are in the midst of a chronic skills crisis that is holding back our economy and causing productivity to flat line.
Even the government’s own Post 16 Skills Plan, published in July, states that the skills system is “crucial to our future prosperity and to the life chances of millions of people”. So why is further education and skills training always the poor relation to higher education, and why is this government pushing ahead with cuts that will decimate a sector that is already starved of funding and almost constantly on the brink of collapse?
The government is fixated on its 3m target, but when it comes to dealing with the skills crisis quality of training is more important than the quantity of apprenticeships. The further education sector has been clear in warning that cuts of 30-50 per cent mean providers will be forced to cut back or even withdraw provision altogether – they won’t be able to deliver even the bare minimum never mind the high quality technical training that is both by young people and the economy.
It was only a few months short ago that the Prime Minister promised that her Government “will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”, and I will go on asking the Government to explain how cuts in apprenticeship funding of 30 per cent, 40 per cent and even 50 per cent fit into this mission to deliver an economy that works for all, not just the privileged few.