Theresa May has certainly talked the talk about the importance of vocational education and enhancing the prestige of non-university-based qualifications. But what her government has actually achieved in this area tells a very different story.
I’m very proud of the work the Liberal Democrats did in the coalition government to expand and promote apprenticeships – creating nearly two and a half million between 2010 and 2015. Quality of training also improved, with 90 per cent of apprentices saying they were satisfied with their training and 75 per cent of employers saying apprenticeships had increased productivity.
But I fear much of this progress is now being undone. For starters, there has been a dramatic decline in new apprenticeship starts in 2017-18; 290,500 starts in the first three quarters of the 2017-18 academic year, compared to 440,300 and 384,500 reported at this time in 2016-17 and 2015-16, a decrease of 34.0 and 24.5 per cent respectively.
And of course, numbers tell only part of that story – the quality of that training is more important still. Ofsted’s deputy director for further education and skills told the House of Commons Education Select Committee last year that “about half” of the provision it had inspected this year required improvement or was inadequate.
Apprenticeships, when they are delivered well, have the potential to offer massive benefits to our employers and our economy as a whole by upskilling our workforce, and offer a vital alternative to those who feel that a more academic route is not the right one for them.
To me it is just common sense that we should be making apprenticeships readily available to every young person who wants to go down that route – and encouraging people to consider taking this path just as readily as we would encourage someone to look into a university degree.
However, we must not just throw people into average apprenticeships with a lack of direction and training. We need to focus on making sure we have high-quality courses and the right training, or we will squander time and money and deny people what should be a great opportunity.
My party is committed to saving and revamping the apprenticeship sector, and it is something I’m personally very passionate about. We should demand the highest-quality provision, and equivalent levels of accountability, as we would when it comes to any other form of education.
This is by no means an easy task and I would be the first to admit that even when the apprenticeship sector was booming, there was still a lot more work to do to ensure no apprentice was let down by poor-quality training.
While there may be no silver bullet to solve this, there are some steps the government could commit to today if they want to make their supposed commitment to technical education a reality.
Firstly, we have a duty to fund our colleges properly. FE colleges provide a huge number of apprenticeships; 313,000 people are doing apprenticeships in colleges currently and nearly half of all apprenticeships in construction, engineering and manufacturing are provided in colleges.
Yet FE colleges have had their funding decimated in recent years. Over the last ten years colleges have sustained, on average, a 30 per cent funding cut and the University and College Union estimates that 23,000 staff posts were lost between 2010-2017.
Colleges provide other benefits too; they are a vital part of the education ecosystem for so many reasons. Colleges train and provide education to 2.2m people, 72 per cent of them are judged to be good or outstanding, and they reach students from diverse backgrounds and of all ages. The repercussions if the government continues to neglect them will be devastating.
This is to say nothing of the positive impact they have for businesses too. By allowing many adult learners to retrain and upskill throughout their careers, colleges provide expertise for key sectors.
Neglecting them risks creating a huge skills gap in the future, which leads me to think: how can the Conservatives claim to be the party of business when they are undermining a sector that is so crucial to the future of so many businesses across the country?
Secondly, we must put the apprenticeships scheme on a more sustainable financial footing by reforming the apprenticeship levy. Since its introduction in April 2017, it has run into difficulties and is increasingly unpopular with businesses, who see it as bureaucratic and too restrictive. It has particularly contributed to a reduction in new starts in small and medium-sized businesses – precisely the sorts of businesses we should be doing most to support.
Thirdly, in the interests of boosting the quality as well as the quantity of apprenticeships, we should drop the target for a specific number of new starts and instead focus on building on the work of the Institute for Apprenticeships and regional bodies to set standards and frameworks for the full range of apprenticeships across all sectors and through all levels. We should also reinstate the requirement for a recognised qualification to be part of an apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships and further investment in FE aren’t just a good idea in theory: in the face of fast-paced technological change (which will mean more and more of us need opportunities to retrain and bolster our skills throughout our careers) and the skills gaps that Brexit threatens to open up in many sectors, they should be seen as a necessity by any government that is serious about maintaining a highly skilled UK workforce and a thriving national economy.