Build, build, build, promised the prime minister in the summer. But for that, you need builders. Since time immemorial, Latin- and Greek-speaking Etonian prime ministers who can’t follow the science or evidence, clueless about skills, bemoan Britain’s lack of vocational education. At every spending review they talk up the need for skills – but contribute token sums to achieve them. It happened again this week: yes, a bit more money, but not much, as further education colleges remain threadbare.
Meanwhile, here comes a great crescendo of unemployment, surging to 2.6 million people when furloughing ends. People are tumbling out of all manner of jobs, high and low, from industries not likely to rehire soon. They need retraining fast. But that’s not on offer.
Here’s what people will find: crash-landing on to universal credit, they will be barred from starting a serious course to retrain. They will waste soul-destroying time forced to prove they are applying for scores of non-existent jobs. They are allowed to train for part of the week, but not enough. Extensive research by Kathleen Henehan of the Resolution Foundation shows “a strong association between training and returning to work, particularly among non-graduates”, and for people to change industry, “only full-time education has a substantial relationship with the likelihood of a 25- to 59-year-old making a career change”. Crucially, but ignored by the government: “Longer and qualification-bearing training is strongly associated with job re-entry among non-graduates.”
The government’s apprenticeship programme was already in free fall pre-pandemic, creating only a fraction of its target of 3 million apprentices. On top of that, the figures for April and May this year are down 85% on 2019, FE Week has found. It was a good idea to make large employers pay a levy, to be reclaimed for apprenticeships – but as in so many previous training schemes, employers gamed it. Fewer than a quarter of apprenticeships went to under-19s for whom it was intended. Money was spent instead on existing in-house training that was so minimal workers didn’t even know they had been designated apprentices. Many firms were so resistant to training, they preferred to let the Treasury take the levy, so the chancellor’s extra £2,000 to employers to take apprentices in this crisis hasn’t worked.
Training and work schemes using private providers have often been gamed and sometimes defrauded: Labour’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds warns of them cherry-picking easy cases in the Restart scheme. David Hughes, the head of the Association of Colleges, says: “There is no indication Restart includes any training.” And nor does it create jobs, which is what’s most needed.
FE colleges have been flooded with applicants, as 16-year-olds escape the empty jobs market, but the extra FE funding doesn’t replace the cuts of the recent years. Total spending on adult skills dropped by 45% between 2010 and 2018, says the rightwing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies. Believe no political homilies on “parity of esteem” for vocational education, until FE gets the same level of funding as universities. Why do 16-19s get less than under-16 school students, despite the higher cost of specialist staff and materials for engineering, construction, hairdressing and myriad practical courses? The collapse of apprenticeships means colleges have been stripped of funds from those day-release courses. Despite the government promising 50,000 new nurses, FE colleges have been barred from offering nursing courses, their degree-awarding rights abolished out of sheer snobbery. The government’s Kickstart scheme, which pays employers to take in young workers for six months, short-sightedly includes no training ingredient.
In a vindictive political act of pure stupidity, the government just axed the Union Learning Fund programme which trained 200,000 people last year. For the small sum of £12m from the DfE, 40,000 union reps help those in the workplace with low skills to take basic courses in IT, maths and literacy. Since the Labour government launched it in 1998, 2.5 million people, union and non-union members alike, have been through the scheme. One simple side-effect was the fostering of more German-style good relations between unions and employers, as they worked together to upskill the workforce. Less intimidating, union reps are better at persuading staff into training. Exeter University research shows the ULF not only helped people to improve their jobs and pay, but also every £1 spent gained the economy £12.87. No reason was given for its abolition.
With high unemployment on the way, and a generation at risk of being out of work, the government has done the bare minimum. Brexit is still to come, too, and the governor of the Bank of England warns that it will do more longer-term harm than Covid. The government’s Shared Prosperity Fund was supposed to compensate for the loss of EU structural funds for poor areas, but the £1.5bn announced by Rishi Sunak in his spending review is far less than the EU sum, and a bare £220m is all that will be released next year.
Elsewhere, Tony Wilson, head of the Employment Studies Institute, says the £100bn allocated for infrastructure “will take years not months to come on stream”. What’s needed urgently then is a quick boost to local public service jobs to compensate for the lack of hiring in the private sector. Time and again employment experts call for a rapid programme to train and hire social and health care workers. There are repeated demands for a green employment programme to train people to retrofit every home with insulation. But the government seems incapable of an FDR-style imaginative leap into nationwide job creation.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist