With just days to go until the general election, distinct differences have emerged between the three main parties’ pledges on skills. Labour has promised a big push on improving basic skills, the Liberal Democrats have proposed the implementation of the Tomlinson Report in full, and the Conservatives have pledged grants for teenagers entering vocational training. As the nation prepares to make up its mind, we look at the detail of their pledges on skills.
At the core of Labour’s agenda is the National Employers Training Programme, which will provide free basic skills training in the workplace to the equivalent of five GCSEs, and a network of brokers to help employers identify their business training needs, and source provision. Where employers are prepared to offer low-skilled staff paid time to train up to level 2, the costs of this training will be fully subsidised. Further subsidised training – £40m over two years – will be piloted in two regions, with funding to be matched by contributions from employers.
Labour would also introduce an adult entitlement providing free tuition to any adult who wishes to gain level 2 qualifications – backed up by a grant of £30 per week for any adult studying full-time for these qualifications. Meanwhile, Labour has pledged £4.5m over two years to create a national Union Academy to enhance the role of trade unions in learning, and increase the number of union learning representatives in the workplace from 8,000 to 22,000.
Greater respect needs to be given to vocational training, according to Liberal Democrat shadow education secretary Phil Willis, who wants to see “an end to education for the best and skills for the rest”. To achieve that aim, the party has pledged to scrap the current system of exams in favour of a diploma – as recommended by the Tomlinson report – and to close the funding gap between schools and further education colleges.
“Labour has dismissed the Tomlinson report and we would adopt it,” said Willis. “The Conservatives are simply furthering the notion that vocational training is a ‘second best’ option for those who don’t perform well academically.”
The Liberal Democrats maintain that the 10% funding gap between schools and FE colleges means that skills courses taught at FE colleges are not as accessible as academic courses in schools. They would invest £340m over a parliament to close this gap by providing equal funding for equivalent courses wherever they are taught. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats would provide a further boost to the FE sector by investing £350m in the modern, high-quality college facilities needed to deliver high-quality skills training.
They are also pledging to give all 16 to 19-year-olds in employment the statutory right to time off for study to achieve up to a first level 3 vocational qualification, and want to encourage businesses to become partners in developing skills.
The Conservatives’ skills agenda centres on the goal of starting vocational training early for pupils who are “not suited” for academic routes. A new scheme of 300,000 vocational grants worth 1,000 a year each would enable 20% of 14 to 16-year-olds to divide their time between preparation for GCSEs and starting work on a vocational alternative at the school itself, a local college or an independent training provider, according to Richard Shackleton, a Conservative spokesperson.
The Conservatives want more flexibility in the way that students choose their training providers and how the training is structured. The party has pledged funding to support full-time study for a student’s first level 3 vocational qualification – an entitlement currently limited to level 2 qualifications by the government. It also wants to establish a network of ‘Super Colleges’ – self-governing institutions, run by the private sector in some cases, that would deliver high-quality vocational education to level 3 and beyond. A smaller group of ‘National Specialist Colleges’ would concentrate on one or two individual subject areas. A capital fund of 1bn over five years would upgrade their infrastructure.
At the same time, the Conservatives propose reducing the number of quangos involved in skills by abolishing the Learning and Skills Council, and replacing it with a streamlined funding organisation. They would also scrap the Sector Skills Development Agency and the Learning and Skills Development Agency.