Labour leader Ed Miliband put "the forgotten 50 per cent" of students and the FE system at the heart of his conference speech on Tuesday, with proposals to back a new Technical Baccalaureate and to place pound;1 billion of apprenticeship funding in employers' hands.
But although rhetoric focusing on the most disadvantaged students who do not go to university will have pleased party activists, the proposals in fact show considerable convergence with coalition policies.
Mr Miliband confirmed that Labour would, as the government has already proposed, require young people to continue studying English and maths to the age of 18. And, as FE minister Matthew Hancock was quick to point out, Labour's plan to hand pound;1 billion of apprenticeship funding to busi- nesses is essentially an extension of the coalition's Employer Ownership of Skills programme, which is currently worth pound;250 million.
Like the coalition, Labour promised that the money would be used to encourage firms to invest their own resources as well, although the government's plans have so far been complicated by firms making "in kind" contributions such as equipment, premises and employee time off for training that are hard to value.
"You get control of the money for training, as you have long asked for, you set standards, but you have a responsibility to make sure the training happens," Mr Miliband said. "In One Nation, there is no place for free labour - the firms that don't train poach workers from firms that do."
However, Mr Miliband insisted in his speech that there were clear dividing lines between the parties. With regard to education, "there really is a choice of two futures", he said. "Education for a narrower and narrower elite with the Conservatives, and a One Nation system as part of a One Nation economy with the next Labour government."
Gordon Marsden, the shadow FE minister, said the difference lay in the fact that the education secretary, Michael Gove, had ignored much of the advice given by experts such as Professor Alison Wolf, accepting recommendations on academic rigour but ignoring proposals aimed at increasing the credibility of technical and vocational education.
"The biggest thing about (Mr Miliband's proposals) is the commitment to the technical route," Mr Marsden said, adding that Labour would return vocational study and work experience to schools as a preparation for FE or apprenticeships.
"Michael Gove did to the Wolf report something very similar to what he did to Jason Holt's report on apprenticeships," Mr Marsden said. "He patted her slightly on the head and then proceeded to ignore the rest of the recommendations, just like he ignored Jason Holt's recommendations about the importance of advice and guidance in schools."
This political positioning has led to some unusual alliances. Lord Baker - at one time Margaret Thatcher's education secretary - endorsed Labour's education policy on the basis of its greater "rigour".
"I support rigour in education. For that reason, I support Michael Gove's proposals for English Baccalaureate Certificates at 16. I also support rigour in technical and vocational education, which is why I support proposals for a TechBac at 18," said Lord Baker, who has promoted the qualification through his Baker Dearing Educational Trust.
There were few details of what the TechBac would include, although former Labour education minister Lord Adonis has proposed that it should be a post-16 qualification with English, maths, vocational skills and work experience. For those who already have good GCSEs, Lord Adonis has proposed a higher-level TechBac.
Other parts of the Labour programme may lead the party into conflict with unions, however. While Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, praised the recognition of the role that education would play in the economic recovery, she criticised the pound;1 billion handover of apprenticeship funding to employers.
"History tells us that handing huge sums of money over to business to improve education does not always produce the best results," she said.
The Association of Colleges said that employer funding of apprenticeships needed to be more than "an easy fix", as chief executive Martin Doel put it. He suggested that it needed to include small businesses as these would be the source of economic growth, but added that this would risk recreating a bureaucracy like the Training and Enterprise Councils.
Private training providers, meanwhile, said that employers should not be given complete freedom to design their own apprenticeships. Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said there should be core provision with options to suit each business, with government funding to be used for English, maths and basic employability and employers paying for the rest.
Spot the difference
English and maths compulsory to 18
pound;250 million of apprenticeship cash under employer control
A levels, existing vocational courses and apprenticeships post-16
English and maths compulsory to 18
pound;1 billion of apprenticeship cash under employer control
A levels or new Technical Baccalaureate post-16.
Original headline: Miliband sets sights on `forgotten 50 per cent' with TechBac plans