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New targets but still the same old problems

Mark Corney assesses the Labour party's youth training proposals. Month by month, Labour's education and training strategy for 16 and 17-year-olds is unfolding. Earlier this year, the party issued Aiming higher - Labour's plans for reform of the 14-19 curriculum, and two weeks ago, it released its long awaited consultation paper Target 2000 - Labour's plan for a lost generation.

Central to Labour's proposals is the replacement of Youth Training with a new programme called Target 2000. The paper also calls for the creation of a refocused and renamed careers service, the Personal Development and Guidance Service.

Less than two-thirds of 16 and 17-year-olds currently achieve level 2 qualifications, and the national targets assume only 85 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds will achieve this level by the year 2000. By contrast, Labour wants every young person to attain level 2 qualifications "unless they have a special education need" preventing them from doing so.

In line with their proposals for the 14-19 curriculum, Labour expects pupils disaffected with academic education to enter vocational education and training via Target 2000. Crucially, however, Target 2000 will cover all employed 16 to 17-year-olds. Labour correctly insists that "everyone under 18 should be studying for at least one day a week or equivalent", and that "employers will have an obligation to ensure this happens to their employees".

Naturally, most attention has focused on the name of the new programme and its financing. Cynics will see Target 2000 as part of an undistinguished line of work experience and training programmes for young people. Meanwhile, others will muse about how dramatically increased outcomes can be attained without extra money.

At present, around one third of YT entrants achieve level 2 or 3 qualifications. Since a significant, but unknown, proportion of YT participants attain similar qualifications after leaving the programme, these figures certainly underestimate the overall performance of YT. Nonetheless, Labour is expecting considerably better outcomes from Target 2000 even though no money from the windfall tax on the public utilities will be forthcoming to augment the existing YT budget of Pounds 550 million.

And yet, the greatest source of uncertainty with Labour's plans lies elsewhere. Labour has been careful to point out that it wishes to explore how "employers can be involved in a positive way in the training and development of their young people". However, the critical question is whether a Labour government will "enforce" the obligation on employers to offer day-release to every employed 16 to 17-year-old.

In order to enforce compliance, legislation will certainly be needed. Yet, it is not important whether fresh legislation, or amendments to current laws, are the vehicle. Such a policy will still represent regulation of the youth training market.

Clearly, there is no reason to doubt Labour's determination to abolish YT. The consultation paper states that Target 2000 will be launched immediately after the general election. Even so, the great unknown remains whether this means the immediate introduction of Target 2000 on its own, or Target 2000 backed-up by relevant legislation. Indeed, the uncertainty surrounding this question is not simply limited to youth training. On the contrary, there are also important implications for the evolution of adult training policy under a Labour government.

In March, the party published Labour's plans for a skills revolution. Espousing an essentially voluntary approach to adult training, the paper promises a national review of training policy during a first Labour government. If stakeholders fail to respond to tax-based individual learning accounts and a new push behind Investors in People, Labour's national review will assess the need for a compulsory training system.

Of course, timing is everything, but the scenarios are intriguing. One scenario could be for Labour to immediately introduce Target 2000 with legislation, thereby signalling a decoupling of their youth and adult training policies.

Another would be to hold over the issue of legislation until the national review, which might take place in the third or fourth year of a Labour government. Similarly, the national review could start immediately after the general election, with one outcome being the launch of Target 2000 alongside legislation for day-release.

However, another issue is compounding the uncertainties. This is the link between youth training and a national minimum wage (NMW). No mention is made of the NMW in Labour's proposals for Target 2000, and it is unlikely that much will be said until Labour's proposed Low Pay Commission makes its recommendations. But this is where the party has an opportunity to win over employer organisations which are steadfastly against the regulation of youth training. In return for accepting legislation on day-release, Labour should promise to exempt young people from a NMW, or at least ensure that they only receive a proportion of an adult minimum wage, as well as fund colleges to meet any additional demand for training courses.

Mark Corney is author of Strengthening Labour's Training Strategy.

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