Open Letter to Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey part 4.
Vocational Education and Local Economies.
Britain needs good jobs but in the right places. At present there are too few good jobs overall and far too few of them where they are needed: in the regions of England and Wales that do not take part in the more vigorous local economies of our largest metropolitan areas. Labour needs to win seats in these areas in order to form the next government and the best way to do so is to attend to their most urgent needs. First among these is the revival of their local economies and the provision of jobs that enable people to live in the areas in which they have grown up and which they identify with.
University education encourages people to leave their home towns and villages and migrate to major cities which are also financial centres, and which tend to have the lion’s share of economic activity. This has a harmful effect on those parts of the country which ‘export’ their young people to university towns probably never to see them again. University degrees are also often a poor fit for the kinds of jobs that are available even in these metropolitan areas. We cannot continue to regard a university education as an unqualified good if it is not suitable for everyone and if it starves resources needed for more beneficial activity. In my last letter I mentioned how advantageous it could be to turn some universities back into polytechnics and using them to stimulate local economies by providing the higher technical and research capacity that is needed to attract high quality investment into their regions. They should broaden their appeal to local young people by providing them with the courses that they will need to get good jobs in their own localities.
But universities tend to be located in or near large towns or cities. Further education colleges are the backbone of vocational education in the smaller towns and rural areas across England and Wales and they have been neglected for years. Labour needs to revive them and link their renewal with investment in businesses for which they can provide the skilled workforce. It is no good just developing courses and qualifications. Supply of skills will not create a demand for those skills unless businesses see that it’s worthwhile to invest in localities. Progress can be made, as it has been in Preston, by ensuring that supply chains remain within the locality. But more needs to be done. Fortunately, there are the tools available for Labour to do the job.
The government, via the Bank of England, should use its purchasing power by issuing bonds to local businesses and firms interested in investing in certain areas which its own economic expertise plus the use of local knowledge suggests will provide a quantity of good jobs and economic stimulation. The Bank already has the authorisation to do this. Many of these jobs will require technical and higher technical abilities which may well be in short supply. Such a programme can begin cautiously and then gather speed as confidence, expertise and capacity grow and the public warms to the initiative and overcomes its suspicion of government investment. If the Bank of England is not as enthusiastic as it might be about such an initiative then a national investment vehicle aligned with local expertise and competence would review, amend and approve proposals before issuing bonds. Part of any such investment strategy will need to ensure that there are local resources for vocational education and training within each area by upgrading capacity if necessary.
As well as profitability such proposals for investment should ensure that:
Good jobs involving task discretion, teamworking and career progression are provided by the enterprises that are being supported.
That there is the education and training infrastructure available to support such work available in a reasonable travel distance for those working in those enterprises.
Government-funded loans should come with a commitment to invest in continuing training. In return, there should be close support for small businesses in taking on apprentices and accessing high quality training provision. It will not be possible to persuade small and medium sized enterprises to take on apprentices and to train their employees if doing so consumes too much time, expertise and effort. Ideally, the Department of Work and Pensions should set up regional support centres for vocational education, working with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and those trade unions that wish to get involved.
Vocational Education and Training (VET) provision should be based on co-operation rather than competition. There should be increased investment in technical education through Further Education colleges and Local Authorities should gain a greater say in college governance than they currently enjoy in order to ensure that the community’s interests are properly represented. By working closely with regional universities or polytechnics, colleges should be able to ensure that provision is not unnecessarily duplicated and that there is adequate coverage within a region, including in relatively remote areas. Where this is not possible then thought needs to be given to providing adequate transport for young people to access centres of vocational education. There is however no reason why Further Education Colleges should not provide qualifications at higher education level where there is a demand that regional polytechnics and universities are unable or unwilling to provide.
Good quality VET has been undermined by an unregulated training market in which rent-seeking cowboys often dominate. The complexity of this market also makes it difficult for a business looking for a reliable VET provider to find one without being taken for a ride. It is important that private training provision is properly regulated and inspected and that legal requirements for VET are met. Training providers that fail to meet exacting minimum standards should have their licence to practise removed.
Some progress has been made in improving the quality of vocational qualifications, but more needs to be done to make sure that apprenticeships in particular are of good quality and lead to jobs that pay well and which give workers scope for independent judgement and autonomy as well as opportunities to work in teams. Productivity can be increased by investment in capital, but it needs to be supplemented by a workforce that can make best use of that investment. While there should be government subsidy for the general and civic elements of an apprentices’ education it is also important that the levy is used in such a way as to provide value for the employer. It is desirable that the levy be extended to smaller firms but with the proviso that there is high quality assistance with applying for levy funding to take on an apprentice, managing the scheme and accessing VET. Ideally such apprenticeships should be between 2 and 3 years long, not a minimum of one year as at present. Apprenticeships only really pay their way for an employer at the end of a three year period when the apprentice approaches becoming a fully productive worker. Employers need to want to take on apprentices and ideally to retain them when they have become fully qualified and have become a net productive asset. Further reform of VET qualifications is not going to be easy and Labour needs to draw on specialist expertise in order to chart a way through to making the levy work for firms and for young people.
It was astonishing that it was the Tories who introduced a compulsory levy, something that Labour under previous leaderships would have been far too timid to have done. But the apprenticeship levy will go the way of many other VET reforms unless it is made to work for all the interested parties. If it is gone, then the prospects for a large scale apprentice-based VET system will have gone for ever. Having said this, though the levy should not be tied to apprenticeships only, where firms are unable or unwilling to provide them. A good network of Further Education Colleges and Polytechnics should ensure that high quality VET is available in all parts of the country.
Labour needs to make the connection between investment in non-metropolitan areas and the provision of good quality VET and then to make that connection visible to the electorate. Unfortunately at the time of writing there is little evidence of the party showing much of an appreciation of how important this is. Both of you need to work together to ensure that investment in the regions becomes a Labour priority.
As I was writing this letter, Jeremy Corbyn made a speech promising to abolish standardised attainment tests (SATS) at ages 7 and 11. Predictably, this promise received a warm welcome from the teachers assembled at the NEU national conference. However, this is muddled and lazy thinking rather than coherent policymaking. The SATS cause distress to teachers and parents because of their link to a dysfunctional accountability system which I argued in the second part of my letter should be abolished. However, the SATS have an independently valuable educational use which would be difficult to replace.
They provide reliable information on the strengths and weaknesses of children’s performance that should enable skilled teachers to address their needs.
Teachers do not have the expertise to provide these assessments in an accurate or reliable way.
Therefore they should be maintained, but minus the failed accountability system that they currently support. It is tempting to play to a gallery of adoring teachers by telling them how wonderful they could be if they were freed from the shackles of an oppressive instrument. But the fact is that teachers are not in a position to provide an effective substitute for the SATS. Their abolition will lead, in short order, to a decline in performance in numeracy and literacy which is already not particularly good. Does Labour want to be associated with a decline in school performance? Please be rigorous in your evaluation of policy and don’t be too afraid to upset one of your natural constituencies if you do not think that it is in the best interests of the children of this country.