Future-gazing at the Conservative Party Conference 2015
The Labour Party spent their conference wondering exactly what a new kind of politics looks like – while the Conservatives were basking in the newness of being the only party of government again. Outside of the main conference hall, an unprecedented number of fringe events debated how to implement the Government’s priorities for the next five years, across every policy area imaginable.
My unscientific reckoning of the fringe guide reveals particular interest in housing, higher education, and the economy (and Europe, but we can take that as read, right?) – but no-one was left out in the cold – not even charities, whose right to campaign using government funding was vigorously debated.
I was particularly pleased to see Skills and Further Education get a good amount of airtime – even if I did spend quite a lot of time turning up to events where the relevant Minister, Nick Boles, was slated to speak, only to find he wasn’t there. This interest reflects the fact that the government has made much of their promise of three million new apprenticeship starts by 2020 (up from two million during the last Parliament) – a laudable aim but one for which there is almost endless devil in the detail. Will there be significant growth in the number of higher level apprenticeships (and if so, what will be the route of progression for those starting without stellar academic qualifications) or will growth come from lower level courses, which many employers don’t rate? Will we continue to see an increasing number of already-employed over-25s taking up the apprenticeships, which undermines the Government’s claim that this is a route for the young, who might otherwise be NEET?
Moreover, is it apprenticeship starts that matter? The apprenticeship completion rate is only around 70% for young people, representing a lot of money and effort wasted in those unfinished courses. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop out, suggesting that apprenticeship enrolment is by no means the only thing needed by those further away from labour market.
The new 14-19 Study Programme received far less attention – except for one Schools Week event which deployed a massive panel of seven to interrogate the commitment that all young people failing to achieve their Level 2 (i.e. a GCSE grade A*-C) qualifications in English & Maths at 16 must enrol to take an equivalent qualification between the ages of 16 and 19. As with apprenticeships – this is surely a sensible policy, but England and Wales have a poor track record of getting young people these ‘catch up’ qualifications – what’s going to be different just because they’re now compulsory?
Implementation is a subject close to our hearts at Impetus-PEF, albeit we focus on it at the organisational-level, not the national. But these two crucial policies, which could do so much to improve the employment prospects of those most likely to become NEET, will stand or fall by how they are implemented. Who will deliver this better teaching of catch up English and Maths – particularly in an environment of shrinking FE budgets? Will employers provide the pipeline of quality intermediate and higher apprenticeships, and the support people need to stay the distance, or will we end up with a numbers game of getting the three million starts, whatever the quality?
By next year’s conference I hope not to be hearing the same nagging questions – from myself, and others. There is time to attend to them – but it isn’t endless.