27 Jun 2024

Skills policy will witness change in the next parliament

Paul Ferguson, Operations Director at renowned training provider Lifetime, sets out his thoughts on the key FE and skills policy proposals of the Labour and Conservative parties.

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I have spent some time analysing the manifesto commitments from the two main parties for post-16 education and skills.

While skills policy is still not at the forefront of any of the parties' campaigns, it is good to see that their growing talk about skills in recent years has filtered into their manifestos.

It was interesting to see both Labour and the Conservatives have increasingly been linking immigration to their skills policy - with the Conservatives’ calling for additional restrictions on skills visa routes, and Labour saying they would reduce the need for overseas workers by training and retraining British workers. These proposals will be of particular interest to those working in the care sector, I expect.

The manifestos finally confirmed each party’s commitment to either reforming and/or investing in the skills and apprenticeship system.

Labour is pledging to create a new public body “Skills England,” which would consist of leaders from businesses, training providers, and national and devolved local governments. It would give the right stakeholders a voice in future decisions. Labour is looking to devolve all adult skills funding to combined authorities, which could be a positive move based on the success of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, and other devolved regions.

The most interesting and talked about policy is the party’s plans to reform the apprenticeship levy into a “growth and skills levy” so that employers can use it to fund a broader range of training beyond just apprenticeships. But it leaves many questions unanswered.

A concern around the opening up of the levy is that this could further the decline in lower-level apprenticeships for younger people. There is, however, an interesting ‘Youth Guarantee’ proposal, which would see all 18–21-year-olds given the option of an apprenticeship, other training, or better supported help to find employment. Anything to improve the number of young people that are learning and/or earning is a positive move in my view.

Labour is vowing to provide more flexibility for employers on how the funding can be spent as well as focusing on young people and apprenticeships. I would like to see a large proportion of the levy protected for lower levels of apprenticeships where young people need the most help, especially those at entry level. At the other end of the scale, Labour’s higher education policy appears vague, other than a desire to better integrate it into the skills strategy.

In contrast to Labour, the Conservatives aim to take the skills system in a different direction. Higher education is given less attention than in previous manifestos. They have suggested reducing student numbers by 13 per cent to pay for 100,000 new apprenticeships a year, though notably not until 2029. I am not sure how I feel about reducing funding for one set of young people to benefit another. However, if the courses are of poor quality, then there is a strong justification for it.

It would be interesting to see how the proposed National Citizen Service would unfold,  and how this would help young people - particularly with improving their skills and confidence, whether through military placements or civic service roles.

There is a pledge to provide adults with the support they need to train, retrain, and upskill flexibly throughout their working lives and from the 2025-6 financial year, adults will be able to apply for loans to cover new qualifications. Skills bootcamps and devolved adult skills funding will be expanded.

History tells us that the party that wins power and what they implement from their manifesto in the years to come may be very different. Who knows where things will be in 5 years? What does seem evident, either way, is that skills policy will witness change in the next parliament.

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