Welcome to The Conversation’s Manifesto Check, where academics from across the UK subject each party’s manifesto to unbiased, expert scrutiny. The result will be a complete guide to the factual accuracy and plausibility of policies relating to health, education, the economy, and more, right across the political spectrum. Here, our expert examines the Labour Party’s promises on apprenticeships and skills.
Labour’s 2015 manifesto promises three initiatives in the area of skills and apprenticeships; the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, the Apprenticeship Guarantee and Youth Allowance. It is not clear whether the party’s priority is to cut the benefits bill and take young people off the unemployment register, or to ensure that all young people gain the skills and experience they need to make the transition to a job with a future. Ultimately, Labour’s skills policy is a disappointing muddle.
The Compulsory Jobs Guarantee would replace benefits with a paid “starter job for every young person unemployed for over a year, a job which they will have to take or lose benefits”. A “starter job” – whatever that may be – does not equip a young person with the skills needed to stay and progress in employment. A low-level, service-sector job is of little use to a young unemployed graduate looking for a foothold in the profession or occupation for which they have studied. Neither is it a solution for a young person, with a history of poor labour market attachment, who requires support and mentoring which cannot be provided by the workplace alone.
But read to the end of Labour’s skills policy announcements and – almost as an afterthought – there is a different deal for 18 to 21-year-olds. Instead of receiving out of work benefits, this group will have access to a Youth Allowance – possibly means-tested – which is dependent on receipt of training.
That leaves the Apprenticeship Guarantee. Unlike the very specific guarantee incorporated in the last Labour government’s Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 and ditched by the coalition, this policy promises only “an apprenticeship to every school leaver who gets the grades”. It does not specify what grades. If we are not told the conditions, we cannot judge if it is a promise worth having.
Removing the bottom rungs
For an 18 to 21-year-old in training, who is not on benefits (but possibly receiving a Youth Allowance) there is no obvious ladder that would enable them to access the promise of an apprenticeship. For instance, it is not clear if they will have the opportunity to get “the grades” – whatever they may be – through a traineeship or similar stepping stone to a full apprenticeship. Likewise, we cannot tell from Labour’s manifesto whether the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee will form part of a pathway, or a dead end.
We must applaud Labour’s commitment to apprenticeships with real value, which are regarded as equivalent to A-level, and can lead to degree-level study in the form of a Technical Degree. But in making these promises, Labour has kicked away the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity to gain a worthwhile occupational skill, which all young people should be able to access.
Labour will continue the coalition government’s policy of giving employers more control over apprenticeship funding and standards. This is sensible, but not without its challenges. Small employers, who provide the most apprenticeship places, have made it clear that they do not want control over funding and the increased complex accountability that entails.
Labour will use changes to government funding rules to try to wean English employers away from their preference for training their own older employees and calling them apprentices, rather than taking on young people. This will be difficult, but – as the Business, Innovation and Skills Commons Select Committee has shown – will provide better value for for government money. If Labour could join their policies up and make some bolder promises on apprenticeships, we could look forward to benefits for the country and for all young people.
Hilary Steedman has previously received funding from government departments, leading charities and international organisations.
Authors: The Conversation