As education spending commitments go, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats did not hold back. Their respective manifestos promised substantial investments in adult skills and colleges. The Conservative Party manifesto was the last of the three to be released and, as far as education policies are concerned, they have chosen a “less is more” approach.
The difference in tone, content and approach between previous Conservative Party manifestos and this year’s offer could not be starker. The absence of numerical targets – a perennial favourite in the Cameron and May years – is an obvious example. Grand proclamations of 3 million people starting an apprenticeship between 2015 and 2020 have been jettisoned in favour of stating that “in the next Parliament, we expect to train up hundreds of thousands more highly skilled apprentices”. Not only were they unwilling to put an exact number on their ambition, it was relegated to a mere expectation rather than a policy goal.
Lib Dem manifesto: Skills wallets and funding
Labour manifesto: A National Education Service and adult education
Nevertheless, the manifesto confidently declared that their recent reforms have meant that “there are more high-quality apprenticeships”. However, it was unclear what this was referring to in terms of apprenticeship starts. For example, just because an apprenticeship is at level 5 rather than level 3, this does not mean it is necessarily a better-quality programme. In fact, recent government statistics showed that level 5 apprenticeships offer the lowest amount of off-the-job training per apprentice compared with all the other levels, with just 360 hours on average. A clear articulation of what a high-quality apprenticeship looks like remains notable by its absence.
Although the big numerical target has been dropped, the manifesto did state that the Conservative Party would “require significant numbers of new UK apprentices for all big new infrastructure projects”, suggesting that they will use procurement rules to demand a minimum number of apprentices for each capital project. It is hard to pin down exactly how many new apprenticeships this might generate, and where, and for whom, but the intention is obvious enough.
The National Skills Fund
Beyond apprenticeships, the self-proclaimed centrepiece of the Conservative Party’s plans is the new National Skills Fund (NSF) that will begin in 2021-2022 and be worth £3 billion over the next Parliament. The proposal is to offer matched funding for learners and small businesses for high-quality education and training (whatever that means). They are also planning to reserve a proportion of this fund for further strategic investment in skills.
Inevitably, we are left with more questions than answers with such a manifesto commitment. Will there be eligibility rules around the age of learners, the level of training or the type of course that gets funded? Will the strategic investment be directed at specific geographical areas or industry sectors, or both? Will it be employer led or provider led? A consultation would presumably emerge soon to provide some early steers.
The overlap between the proposed NSF and the pilots of the National Retraining Scheme is easily detected. For instance, the NSF will help to transform the lives of people who have not got on to the work ladder and lack qualifications, as well as people who are keen to switch from one career to another – two groups of individuals that are also targeted by the National Retraining Scheme. This leaves the door open to the NSF becoming a more permanent version of its forerunner, although this might change if the pilots do not deliver an impressive set of outcomes.
The Augar review and T levels
Despite some rumours to the contrary before the manifesto was launched, the Augar review did make the final cut. That said, it was an underwhelming appearance, with a single reference to its “thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels [and] the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships and adult learning”. The fact that this solitary mention appeared in the higher education section of the manifesto, not the skills section, does not bode well given the ferocity of the lobbying against the Augar review by universities.
Perhaps the most surprising absentee from the manifesto is T levels. Given that these new technical qualifications have been championed by two prime ministers and three education secretaries over the past few years and are supposed to begin next September, their exclusion suggests that the Conservative Party is not convinced about their value or likelihood of success. Their dismal visibility among students, parents and employers may also have played a role in the decision to omit them, leaving this new brand of qualifications with an uncertain future.
After almost 10 years in power, any political party will find it hard to rejuvenate their platform. The Conservative Party seems confident that it is on the right path with many skills policies. On that basis, their manifesto was a reasonably calm and considered plan that did not feel the need to emulate their opponents’ attempts to break the policy shackles.
Tom Richmond is founder and director of the EDSK think tank, and a former government adviser on skills