Skills is the great Cinderella topic of British politics. The standard refrain is that while vocational education is terribly important, you just can’t get the public excited by it. Tony Blair even said that if he had wanted to secretly declare nuclear war, he would have done so in the middle of a speech about further education, because no one would be listening.
This is the excuse often given for both the hideous underfunding experienced by colleges and the lack of media coverage of their sector. And yet if you’re talking to parents in the Red Wall about education, as I do, there is one thing that is likely to be mentioned more positively than any other. It’s not English or maths. Nor is it GCSEs or A-levels. University and degrees aren’t top of the list, either.
That one thing? Apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships are one of the greatest ‘brands’ in British education and yet they have been woefully under-supported, and under-valued (in terms of their saliency) by politicians for way too long.
I run lots and lots of focus groups in working class communities, very often on the subject of education, and if you ask a group of mums or dads what they want for their kids, the answer you get more often than not is something like this: ‘I just want my kid to get on a good apprenticeship and to get a trade.’
Apprenticeships, if secured and completed, are still considered the most reliable route to security, both professionally and economically. They are absolutely something to aspire to. Ask about university, however, and more often than not working class parents will mention ‘debt’ and then start talking about the apprenticeship alternative. You might then be told they are the ‘gold standard’. This will often be followed quickly by the observation that ‘there aren’t any apprenticeships around here, though’ or that ‘the competition is just so fierce that he/she probably won’t get on one’.
This is why the investigations being undertaken by the Independent into the woeful mismanagement and underperformance of the David Cameron government’s flagship Apprenticeship Levy policy have been so welcome. There has been embarrassing levels of underspend, and of the cash that is spent, too much goes to older, wealthier people who don’t need it. Take-up among 18-25-year-olds is actually going backwards.
This amounts to a tragic failure on the part of Conservative governments since 2010 (and, to be fair, the Labour administrations before them) to get a handle on this and give families and communities what they so clearly want from apprenticeships.
This is why I am convinced that Blair was at least partially mistaken. He was right that the post-16 route for non-A-level students is horrendously complex (the alphabet soup of qualifications is unforgivable) and hard to define in a headline, but he was wrong that nobody cares.
Key voters at the next election would certainly welcome hearing something about vocational education. But they would be all ears if a party (Labour, say) were to offer them some kind of ‘apprenticeship guarantee’. Working class voters in the Red Wall would almost certainly respond incredibly positively if Sir Keir Starmer promised high quality, high-value apprenticeships for all young people who wanted and qualified for them.
Getting apprenticeships policy right is one of those rare things: it is both right for the country (we desperately need more skilled workers) and electorally salient. That’s not saying it would be easy to deliver. It would require a huge amount of ministerial and civil service brain space, and probably a decent wedge of public sector investment – but it would certainly be well worth the effort.
For Labour, the party of workers, a big apprenticeships offer feels like a no-brainer.
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