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Seema Malhotra: The Tories are short-changing young people

The shadow skills minister on Labour's jobs agenda, reforming apprenticeships, and valuing creative subjects.

By Sarah Dawood

The shadow skills minister Seema Malhotra first stood for the Labour Party in 1983, when she was 11 years old. As a candidate in her primary school council elections, inspired by her grandmother and four siblings, she pledged better pensions and more public facilities for children. She didn’t win, but she did come second.

At the age of 15, Malhotra gave her second major polemic. Asked by her English teacher to write about something that “wound [her] up”, she chose Margaret Thatcher. Not much later, when Malhotra was officially a Labour member, she invited the late Glenys Kinnock, a former teacher herself, to speak at her school. Malhotra’s teachers declined, however. They didn’t want students getting “too political”, she recalls when we meet at her parliamentary office in January.

“Obviously, this was like a red rag to a bull,” says Malhotra. She is friendly, if slightly nervous, in a red blazer and matching lipstick. After studying politics and philosophy at university, she started her career in IT consultancy, campaigning for Labour on weekends. She has been the Labour and Cooperative MP for Feltham and Heston in Hounslow since 2011, and on the skills brief since 2023. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she grew up above her family’s shop, which sold school uniforms and jewellery in the west London borough. Her engineer father ran the shop while her mother, a former headteacher, worked with children with special needs in local primary schools. Alongside being an MP, Malhotra also runs a charity called Hounslow’s Promise, which works to provide better access to education and employment for local children from underprivileged backgrounds.

Skills, a policy area that touches economic growth and opportunity, seems, therefore, like a fitting portfolio for the 51-year-old. But it’s not a simple one – the UK faces major skills shortages across multiple industries. The government’s new immigration rules will deter more international key workers from coming to the UK, exacerbating gaps in the NHS, hospitality and social care. Meanwhile, according to Department for Education figures, four in ten 19-year-olds leave school without vital “level three” qualifications – meaning A-levels or equivalent. An estimated 11 million adults lack the digital skills they need for the evolving economy, according to research by Lloyds Banking Group. A recent survey by the Learning and Work Institute found that there are nearly four million fewer “adult learners” today than in 2010.

The Conservatives have overseen “14 years of decline” in skills and education, says Malhotra. “The economy is changing, and… demands from industry are not being met. There’s a real issue in terms of supply and demand of what we need for the economy, but also what people need to be successful.”

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In particular, she adds, there is an issue with the “missing middle” of the workforce in crucial sectors, between qualification levels 3 and 6 – those between A-level and university degrees or equivalent. According to another Learning and Work Institute report, this means that the workforce is “excessively polarised” with too many people in either high- or low-qualified roles, hampering social mobility and productivity, and worsening skills gaps in sectors such as construction, hospitality and manufacturing. Creative subjects have been completely devalued too, says Malhotra. “There is a huge link in terms of personal development [with creativity] but also with inspiring change and being part of what we need to drive the industries of the future,” she says.

Bringing soft skills – such as communication, critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork – into the school curriculum is a core part of Labour’s mission to “break down barriers to opportunity”. Keir Starmer has specifically highlighted the benefits of oracy. It is “incredibly important”, says Malhotra, “to have the confidence to go into an interview, to talk about yourself, to communicate really well, to be able to feel part of a team, and to have the confidence to achieve your own ambitions and goals”.

Conservative policy has concentrated more on science, technology, engineering and maths. Last year, Rishi Sunak announced reforms for all students to study maths to 18. Malhotra wouldn’t say whether a Labour government would implement such a policy, but she thinks that the way subjects like maths are taught needs to be more accessible, intuitive and “relevant” from primary school age. Labour will be undertaking a curriculum review, she tells me, overseen by the shadow schools minister Catherine McKinnell and in partnership with teachers, unions and parents to create a “coherent strategy” of “what a curriculum should look like”.

Work experience will also be central to Labour’s strategy. Placements are crucial for giving young people the chance to experience a workplace and more “clarity” about what jobs exist. “[For some] it’s the first time they’ve had the chance to be in an environment where they actually hear adult conversation,” she says. But while work-related learning used to be compulsory for 14- to 16-yearolds, this was scrapped by the Cameron coalition government in 2012. A Freedom of Information (FoI) request Malhotra conducted in 2013 found that this had resulted in 60,000 fewer work experience placements in the first year of that policy. In 2021, Keir Starmer pledged that he would reintroduce such placements.

Labour has ambitious targets to get 85 per cent of young people into “sustained” (at least six months) education, employment or training by 2030, with 70 per cent in higher education. But many students lack guidance, says Malhotra. A vital first step is “to make sure we’ve got the investment in our teachers, recruitment and retention”. The party has also committed to employing 1,000 more careers advisers in schools. “I hear time and time again,” she says, “[from] young people who say, ‘I never knew this was open to me, I never knew it was a possibility.’

“This is short-changing young people with the information, advice and support they need to make decisions for the long-term.” Helping them to be “more confident in [their] choices” could be a boon to social prosperity.

Devolution will be crucial to filling skills gaps. Labour has pledged to set up Skills England, a new national body that will identify shortages across the economy, create accredited courses in partnership with government, industry and the education sector, and inform a skills strategy.

Labour also plans to rebrand further education colleges as “technical excellence colleges”. These will have specialisms based on the needs of local economies and will join up with schools’ improvement plans for key skills. Courses will be taught with nearby industry partners to help transition young people from education into the workplace.

But local government is in dire straits – a growing list of authorities and councils are going bankrupt. How will they have the resources to fund a localised skills strategy? The private sector will be essential to this, says Malhotra: “Local authorities have been subject to their own decade of decline. That’s why it’s really important to have our systems working together… it’s got to be a partnership approach.”

Cooperation with the private sector comes up a lot in our conversation, which is not surprising, given Starmer’s focus on positioning Labour as the “party of business”. Malhotra, who says her parents’ shop sparked an appreciation for entrepreneurship and small business in her, is adamant that collaboration between industry and government will be vital to her brief.

“It applies to how we set the demands for where the skills needs are, but also through delivery with employers, engaging with our schools through work experience, engaging in our qualifications through apprenticeships and T-levels… and in delivering technical excellence colleges,” she says. She believes this will be “transformative” for skills strategy and delivery.

Labour will also reform the Apprenticeship Levy, which the shadow minister says has “failed”. lntroduced in 2017, it requires employers with an annual payroll of more than £3m to contribute 0.5 per cent of their total income to fund apprenticeships. Employers that pay into the levy can access that money, plus a government top-up, for apprentice training. But detractors claim it is hard to access, not financially viable for small businesses, and inflexible.

“Businesses have lost confidence” in the levy, says Malhotra. Since 2017, there have been 200,000 fewer people starting apprenticeships, and over £3bn in unspent levy money. Labour’s answer is a reformed growth and skills levy, which will give employers more “flexibility” on training and spending. Businesses would have the freedom to use up to 50 per cent of levy contributions on nonapprenticeship training, based on a Skills England-approved list of qualifications. This includes more “modular” courses that can be completed alongside a job, rather than full-time apprenticeships.

One of the UK’s core skill-shortage areas is in green jobs, such as renewables engineering. The shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has pushed back the party’s £28bn green prosperity plan, with this level of annual investment not expected to be reached until 2027. Last month, the party also denied claims it was dropping the pledge altogether. How can Labour invest in green skills without the financial commitment?

Malhotra repeats what has become a familiar line on the £28bn figure: “It isn’t going to all be about the size of investment on day one; this has got to be a plan over a period of time. We’re looking at… a decade of renewal in our skills… as we increase and ramp up that investment to £28bn. [And] we’re inheriting a really difficult set of circumstances from the Conservatives.”

A national skills strategy and skills framework will be key to addressing gaps, she says. Labour will develop these in line with the party’s industrial strategy and green prosperity plan.

“We aren’t going to deliver an industrial strategy across different sectors without having a skills strategy underpinning it,” she says.

In 2020, the government dropped the New Labour target of getting 50 per cent of young people in England into university. In his party conference speech last year, Rishi Sunak described Labour’s higher education target as “one of the greatest mistakes of the last 30 years”, claiming it led to a devaluing of degrees.

In his Labour Party conference speech, Starmer said the Conservatives had “levelled down” people’s aspirations, speaking effusively about the right of working-class people to tertiary education. But should everyone go to university, I ask Malhotra?

“Some of the narrative we have of university vs vocational, technical education, is extremely unhelpful,” she says. The drop in apprenticeship starts and adult learners shows that “things have moved backwards”. People need to be able to choose whether they go to university, vocational education, or both – better partnerships between further and higher education institutions and more flexibility could mean that some students do apprenticeships, then convert their training to a degree. Others might want options where “learning is combined with working”.

More flexible models of learning will help older people back into the workplace too, says Malhotra. Economic inactivity in the UK is at an all-time high, with 2.5 million people out of work due to long-term sickness, and record numbers of over-50s leaving the workforce.

“I see in my constituency a lot of people who want to get back into the workplace but who struggle to get back, whether it’s for skills, or it might be confidence for getting through an interview or dealing with ill health or caring needs,” she says. “That’s why I think having colleges at the heart of our communities… is extremely important”, as is “the devolution of our adult education, budget and powers”, she adds.

Our time is up, but before Malhotra rushes off to another meeting, she asks one of her staff to take a few snaps of us on his phone – “candid” and “posed”. She frantically searches for her keys on her desk and tells me as she dashes out of the room, “If it’s important, I’ll lose it.”

She may now be a shadow minister, but Malhotra’s values have remained fairly consistent since that first election in 1983. Her aim, she tells me, is to ensure young people have opportunities like she did: “It’s about making sure that young people are more confident in the choices they’re making for themselves – and that we have a system that is enabling that.”

This article first appeared in our print Spotlight report on Skills, published on 2 February 2024.

[See also: The rotten state]

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