Throughout this era of austerity, the government’s mantra has been “more for less”. On this basis, it’s hard to argue against the conclusion that the Work Programme has been a failure.
Although the controversial scheme is far cheaper to run than the programmes which preceded it, its impact has been equally low budget. As Labour MP Liam Byrne put it back in 2013, it had “missed every single one of its minimum targets and in nearly half the country, the Work Programme is literally worse than doing nothing”.
At the time, in large parts of the country the proportion of people who embarked on the programme and subsequently went on to find work was actually lower than among those who didn’t bother.
Since then things have improved slightly. There has been modest progress in increasing the proportion of participants finding work. In total, some 1.75 million people have been referred to the Work Programme; of these, 459,400 have achieved what official parlance calls “sustained job outcomes”.
Since June 2011, a quarter of participants have found sustainable employment two years on from completing the programme. Of those taking the course in the past two months, 29 per cent have completed it. If you think this doesn’t sound impressive, it’s an improvement on the last set of results.
Quite aside from the fact that the bar is embarrassingly low, new analysis for TES by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (see story opposite) reveals the huge variations in the programme’s effectiveness. The odds are particularly stacked against the most vulnerable people, including those with disabilities and those suffering from mental illness.
The variations between different parts of the country are also enormous, with the success rate in Brentwood an incredible eight times as high as that in Rutland.
Experts have pointed the finger at the payment-by-results system, whereby providers receive full payment only if they successfully help participants get, and keep, a job. Little wonder, then, that concerns abound that providers prefer to take on less challenging clients, with the most vulnerable seen as too risky.
In addition, the unwieldy structure makes few allowances for regional variations in the job market. And crudely classifying clients according to their benefits – while failing to acknowledge their complex individual needs or to work hand in hand with other government agencies – is a recipe for continued frustration.
As Professor Peter Urwin, director of the University of Westminster’s Centre for Employment Research, has made clear (bit.ly/Disadvantaged JobSeekers), the FE sector can have a “transformational” impact in helping young people from the most challenging backgrounds to turn their lives around.
And yet, in too many cases, bureaucratic and clunky policy seems to frustrate its efforts.
In this case, perhaps devolution could hold the answer. Moves to hand more powers to local areas, giving providers, local enterprise partnerships, employers and government agencies the freedom to create a joined-up form of provision designed around the employment needs of their area, could offer a glimmer of hope.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the Work Programme. And, with the tender to run its replacement expected to go out early in 2016, there is not much time.
We’ve already seen the dangers of rushed implementation being done on the cheap. For the sake of the most disadvantaged young people, with little hope of finding a job to support themselves, let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.