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The government’s skills agenda is deeply flawed. But what would Labour do differently?

The shadow skills minister on the opposition's plan for apprenticeships and further education.

By Toby Perkins

Under this government, we have a failing and fragmented approach to skills, with competing priorities and a plethora of initiatives that exclude too many learners and place British employers at a competitive disadvantage. 

Under Keir Starmer, Labour has embarked on a mission to reimagine this approach and create a coherent system that better serves employers and learners and revives the institutions we rely upon. 

Over the past 13 years, Britain’s further education sector has been decimated. The pandemic and energy price spikes have only exacerbated this crisis, and there are several colleges in danger of collapse or further wholesale redundancies. 

A coherent approach to skills policy requires an industrial strategy working in the national interest. This means qualifications that strengthen our educational institutions and create transparent pathways from school to the workplace.  

The apprenticeship levy, introduced in 2017, has virtually shut small and medium-sized businesses out of providing apprenticeships, due to a lack of funding and excessive bureaucracy. Labour wants more focus on entry-level apprenticeships at levels 2 to 4 to ensure more young people are able to get into work. Since the levy’s inception, there has been more than £3bn returned to the Treasury from the levy pot. Labour is proposing to reform it into a skills and growth levy, allowing half the funds to be spent on pre-apprenticeship training or other high-quality qualifications. 

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Under our plan, the need for a strategic approach would be the responsibility of a new body, Skills England, informed by employers and educationalists charged with creating a coherent landscape. An incoming Labour government would also introduce face-to-face, professional careers advice for every pupil, and ensure the equivalent of two weeks of meaningful work experience to widen pupils’ horizons, with every school assessed on the quality of its students’ interactions with the workplace. 

As someone who spent nine years in the recruitment industry before entering parliament, I know employers have long struggled to recruit skilled staff. However, despite every Tory skills reform since 2010 being labelled an attempt to put employers in the driving seat, skills shortages are a more prominent concern for employers than they have ever been. Our government has allowed Britain to have the lowest levels of participation in adult and workplace education in 30 years. 

Labour will give apprenticeship levy payers the freedoms they have often asked for, but there is also an onus on employers to help those further from the workplace to become economically active too. 

Starmer has also committed a future Labour government to an era of devolution. This doesn’t have to contradict the need for a strategic approach in the national interest; we envisage a clearer pathway that encourages local initiatives.  

Last year, he set out a transformative vision for Britain, with ambitious plans to double Britain’s onshore wind capacity, treble solar power and quadruple offshore wind; invest in tidal, hydrogen, and nuclear; back carbon capture; and commit to green steel production. He discussed proposals to establish renewable ports, new gigafactories and the insulation of 19 million homes. This will require the biggest partnership between government, business and communities in this country’s history. It will mean more than a million new jobs, and training for plumbers, electricians, engineers, software designers, technicians and builders. 

Labour wants to see a more balanced skills system, recognising the needs of both the learner and the employer. All stakeholders must work together to create a holistic offer for learners and employers. 

Toby Perkins is the shadow minister for further education and skills

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight supplement on skills and apprenticeships. Click here for the full edition. 

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