Simon Fell: Levelling up requires apprenticeship schemes to work as intended

11 Apr

Simon Fell is MP for Barrow & Furness

More than 20 years ago, Tony Blair set a target to get half of school leavers into higher education. However well-intentioned this may have seemed, it was a bad policy: the number of poor quality degrees increased and a generation of young people racked up debts paying for qualifications giving them few discernible advantages in the job market.

This Government has been right to address the problem that Labour created. It has recognised that young people shouldn’t be shepherded down paths that aren’t right for them and has raised the profile and quality of alternatives to university such as apprenticeships.

Its flagship Apprenticeship Levy – through which big employers contribute to vocational training – has forced large firms to take a stake in improving people’s skills. I see the direct benefits of this in my own constituency of Barrow & Furness – as do the firms that have embraced apprentices and see the benefit of a system that allows you to earn while you learn.

But there’s a problem. As the thinktank Onward’s latest research has found, the number of entry-level, intermediate apprenticeships suitable for people finishing their GCSEs has fallen by 11% since 2017/18 – and has more than halved since 2011/12.

Unfortunately, the places hardest hit by this fall in entry-level apprenticeships are the ones that have historically relied on them more: post-industrial towns in Northern England. There, the number of people starting apprenticeships has fallen in all but two constituencies.

Simultaneously, apprenticeships have become more popular in affluent parts of London and Southern England. So while apprenticeship numbers are falling in the Red Wall, they’re going up in Battersea, Wimbledon, Chelsea and Fulham. That clearly isn’t what ministers intended.

Onward identified one key cause of this: a drop in the number of small and medium sized businesses offering apprenticeships. Historically, SMEs trained up the bulk of young apprentices by giving them their first foot on the career ladder. Their diminishing role in the system should be a real concern to my colleagues in Government as we seek to rebalance the economy and level up communities across Britain.

While the Apprenticeship Levy has been good at getting big firms involved in training, they often don’t spend their levy in a way that benefits the next generation. Too many big firms spend levy funds intended for young people on training up their existing employees – many of whom already have degrees. This has resulted in nearly twice as many over-25-year-olds doing apprenticeships than 19-year-olds. So, apprenticeships are topping up mid-career training, rather than kickstarting a career.

While it is good that employers are investing in their staff, too often this happens at the expense of the young people who would most benefit from an apprenticeship. We cannot allow the system to be monopolised by the middle classes. To address this, Onward have made several policy suggestions, which Ministers and civil servants should read in detail.

The first and most important is to fund apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds on the same basis that they fund A Levels. Currently if a young person wants to do A-Levels then the costs of these will be entirely met by the state. But if they want to do an apprenticeship then they must find a business willing to pay. This disparity is unfair and should be addressed before the next election.

Given the important role that SMEs play in training apprentices, the Government should look at ways to make it easier for them. Onward suggests that the answer lies in local government, by empowering mayors to play an enhanced role in helping local businesses navigate an often-complex system and linking them up with local school leavers. Many local leaders are already doing this.

Ministers should also look at fine-tuning the way the Apprenticeship Levy works. In particular, it should offer longer-term financial incentives to big firms to encourage them to spend their levy funds on training up new recruits rather than topping up middle managers’ degrees.

At the last election, the Government pledged to level up left behind communities, but in too many areas apprenticeships are being levelled down. There is both a moral and a political imperative to fixing this. The Government should get to work.

Virginia Crosbie: Nuclear is key to securing the UK’s energy future

10 Feb

Virginia Crosbie is the Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn.

Nuclear power has a key role alongside renewables in the UK’s clean energy transition through supporting both reliable, low-carbon electricity generation and the future production of hydrogen.

With the lowest lifecycle carbon footprint of all the energy sources, the Government has committed to continuing its development of large and small scale reactors. This has been outlined in several key policy documents, including the 2020 Energy White Paper, the National Infrastructure Strategy, the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for an Industrial Revolution, and most recently the Net Zero Strategy.

My constituency of Ynys Môn (Anglesey), also known as “Energy Island”, is well placed to become a hub for nuclear and other low-carbon energy generation, given its location and skills base, both here and across the wider region. It is particularly encouraging therefore that the Government has shown clear support for the continuation – and expansion – of the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom.

I chair the Nuclear Development Group (NDG) and All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which look to support the deployment of all three “classes” of nuclear – SMR, AMR and large scale and to work with Government and industry on how best to accelerate such a deployment.

Nuclear is one of the largest sources of clean energy used today and will continue to play a critical role in providing clean and affordable electricity. In the future, nuclear will contribute to decarbonisation through heat and hydrogen production, as well as continuing the production of low-carbon, reliable electricity through large, small (SMR) and advanced reactors (AMR). The use of modular manufacturing and changes to nuclear financing will make reactors easier to deploy in pursuit of our net zero goals.

Furthermore, the high temperatures produced by Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs) could be used directly for Foundation Industries that require continuous and intense heat, whilst the output can also be used in the production of synthetic fuels, such as those being developed for low-emissions aircraft. The Government is taking steps now in order to support the development of small-scale nuclear so that it will play a key role in delivering Net Zero by 2050.

To ensure that the UK can harness this potential, it is imperative that the civil nuclear industry retains its talent and nurtures the next generation. Through apprenticeships, graduate scheme opportunities and the 60,000 highly skilled workers already employed in nuclear, the industry is investing in the skills and development of its workforce right across the UK.

Not all roles mean you need to have a PhD in nuclear physics! The nuclear sector offers a range of apprenticeships as well as graduate positions which can build the skills base ready for new build projects and work across the nuclear fuel cycle in both the civilian and defence fields. Careers are not just limited to technical and engineering roles either, with demand across roles in legal, finance, marketing, and communications, to name but a few.

The age profile in nuclear, like many technical fields, is skewed to the right and can provide large numbers of well-paid jobs across the nuclear supply chain to school, college and university leavers. New nuclear power plants can expect to operate for 60-80 years followed by 15-20 years of decommissioning, providing employment for generations of families, both directly within the facility and indirectly in the wider supply chain. This economic benefit spills into multiple sectors, from the local tax revenue to the provision of services to employees and supply chain partners from haircuts to healthcare.

If we are to meet our climate change commitment, the UK urgently needs to replace and build more nuclear power plants. New nuclear can bring major economic, social and environmental benefits for Ynys Môn and the UK. I remain very hopeful that by working with Government and organisations across the nuclear supply chain, we can see nuclear investment come to Ynys Môn and the wider economy, levelling up areas that have been forgotten and advancing the decarbonisation agenda.

Dean Machin: Policymakers must understand the reasons people go to university – or else educational reforms will be resented

13 Dec

Dean Machin is Head of Public Policy at the University of Portsmouth. He is a former philosopher who has advised David Willetts and written a report on data-sharing for the Social Mobility Commission.

It is the increasingly settled wisdom that universities are failing to deliver yet they are more popular than ever. Why?

Putting aside conspiracy theories about universitiesingenious ways to inveigle young people into their clammy embrace, part of the explanation must be that, university apart, the options for school-leavers are poor. But we won’t change what school-leavers aspire to without understanding why university is so attractive, particularly to disadvantaged young people.

The Apprenticeship Levy, which unintentionally led to a decline in intermediate and advanced apprenticeships at the same time as a significance increase in higher apprenticeships, highlights how policy can misfire when policymakers do not understand people’s motivations. A party that has always seen itself as working with the grain of human nature should remember this.

It’s about taking control of your future, not just productivity

The Centre for Policy Studies recently proposed a package of measures to incentivise the kind of training and education that will make both individuals and the country richer in the long run. The pre-supposed purpose of university is to improve productivity. Courses that do not this should be taken at students’ “own risk. Whether this is the ‘right’ purpose of a mass university system is beside the point: if reforms based on this premise jar with why people choose university, perverse outcomes will follow and many young people will be left frustrated and angry.

As any university recruiter will tell you, there are a whole raft of often idiosyncratic reasons why anyone chooses university or one university over another. But some generalisations are possible.

First, university is a fairly permanent aspiration. In 2010 the Millennium Cohort Study found that 97 per cent of mothers of seven year olds wanted their children to go to university. A more recent survey found that 65 per cent of parents with children under 10, and 70 per cent of parents with children 1115, want their children to go to university.

Second, through UCAS there is a well-designed and relatively efficient national system to turn young people’s occasionally vague aspirations to university into effective applications. There should almost certainly be some similar system for further education and apprenticeships.

Third, school leavers have few good alternatives to university but – and this is the central point – for disadvantaged young people, university is by a long way their best bet. The state pays upfront for their education and offers (means-tested) living-costs – weighted to enable them to move to another town or city. There is no comparable level of support for any other option.

If you do not live in a place that offers many economic opportunities, and if you have few financial resources and little social capital (so no friendly aunt in Islington to provide lodging while you find your way in the media), university is your best bet to reduce the degree to which your background determines your future.

Francis the Train Guy recently found social media fame because of his infectious passion for trainspotting. When interviewed, he cited university as giving him the confidence to be open about what is generally viewed as a tedious pass-time. He contrasted the liberating effect of university with the pressure to conform at school and sixth form.

For Francis, it was trainspotting and for some others it will be their sexuality. For most, though, it will be an ambition to be something that perhaps their parents find incomprehensible, or that no-one in their background has ever seen as feasibly achievable. In his speech ‘What is education for?Michael Gove put the general point rather well. Education has an emancipatory, liberating, value. … I believe education allows individuals to become authors of their own life story. Education helps you take control of your own life.

Is emancipation the state’s business?

Life is not sustained by productivity increases alone and having greater control over your own life is something citizens can demand of their politicians. Public funding for this is also uniquely valuable for disadvantaged young people – those with little social and financial capital behind them. More advantaged young people might not need state support to see the world as full of opportunities, to develop self-confidence, or to make their aspirations effective. Disadvantaged young people almost certainly will. Narrowing university funding only to areas that make people more productive would level down, not up.

So what?

While this argument reinforces Government wisdom to provide alternatives to university – different people will become authors of their own story in different ways – it also highlights the need for policymakers to understand the varied reasons that draw people to university. Without this, well-intentioned reforms might have perverse consequences and be resented. Attempts to push people on to technical courses at local further education colleges, for example, who might otherwise leave home for university (possibly to study the creative arts!) could end up being as popular as Jeremy Corbyn.

When describing the liberating benefits of university, the Train Guy made no mention of the subject he studies (engineering if you are interested). The benefits of university are not reducible to the economic returns of studying a particular subject. If they were it would be very difficult to explain the 2021 HEPI Survey finding that while 25 per cent of those surveyed would have changed course or university, only eight-nine per cent wished they had not gone at all.

Those who think is this all is nonsense and that investment in universities must succeed or fall on the basis of productivity increases should note one thing. To implement their view not only will policy have to change but so will people. Young people must start to want different things. It has always been a standard critique of left-wing parties that their policies would work if only the people were different.

Finally, and more practically, the foregoing identifies a test for the Government’s post-18 education reforms: do reforms give disadvantaged young people those with little social and financial capital a greater chance to be “authors of their own life story” or just the chance to be more productive? Answering this question will offer a very good guide to which reforms will work and which will not.

David Willetts: If we’re to have less migration into Britain – and more productivity – we must move around more within it

5 Nov

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Behind last week’s Budget and the Prime Minister’s conference speech there are deep questions about how Britain is going to pay its way – and hence pay ourselves well too.

In the 16 years leading up to 2008, average earnings grew by 36 per cent. In the next 16 years up to the end of the period covered by the Budget, it is forecast they will have risen by just 2.4 per cent. One reason for the anger and frustration in our public discourse is quite simply that we have stopped delivering the great promise of capitalism – of increasing prosperity for us and our children.

The only viable way to get us back on the path to higher living standards is by boosting our productivity. GDP per hour worked is now about a quarter higher in France and Germany than ours. We ought to be able to catch them up: that is the challenge we should set ourselves.

There is a clear agenda for it in the Budget. Invest in human capital at all stages of our lives. Invest in physical capital with public spend on infrastructure at record levels. And invest in science and innovation where increased public spending should crowd in more private spending too. And, crucially, get business investment growing again.

That is an excellent agenda. But it may not on its own get to the deeper reason for the decline in performance of the British economy: we are not dynamic enough.

The rate of economic change has been declining. Our research at Resolution Foundation shows that over the decade before Covid struck, the rate at which labour moved from one broad economic sector to another was at a post-War low. Similarly, the rate of voluntary job moves in 2019 was a third lower than in 2001. Labour mobility, geographical mobility and social mobility are all linked. We are quite simply not moving enough.

We are anyway going to have change forced upon us, thanks to the need to decarbonise and advances in technology. We ought to be able to use these drivers of change to boost our performance rather than trying to hide from it. That is why we at Resolution Foundation have set up an inquiry in partnership with the LSE into the future of Britain’s economic model.

The health advice during Covid – “stay home” – in a way summarises what has been happening to our economy for two decades. It is a striking contrast with the 1980s when Norman Tebbit famously told us to “get on your bike”. We had record rates of creation of new jobs (and the painful loss of old ones) and record shifts between different industrial sectors.

One clear signal about which jobs to move to was larger pay gaps between jobs. Nowadays, the places with higher pay also have higher rents and as fewer people are owner-occupiers this directly reduces their incentive to move. The 1980s did see rising inequality but, at the same time, there were record increases in absolute incomes – including for the less affluent half of the population.

This poses acute dilemmas for any Conservative. We are the party of freedom, mobility, and enterprise. But we are also the party of community, belonging, and tradition. What is it to be – roots or wings? These are tensions we all feel within ourselves. And we may reach different views at different stages of our lives. Young people need their chance to fly the nest but this is getting harder – with the move to independent adulthood slower and harder.

The mood in the Party and perhaps in the country seems to favour the ties of place. If you were still living in the county of your birth you were 10 per cent more likely to vote Brexit. In this sense, rather paradoxically, it is the remainers who were the Brexiteers. The balance is tilting in the endless debate on whether people should move to the jobs or jobs to the people.

This is why universities – a crucial means of detaching us from the family home and giving us the chance to move on and move up – appear to have fallen out of favour. But the higher education route has long been used by the more affluent for whom the residential university served as a natural successor to boarding school. It is still the case that the more affluent a student’s family, the further their university is likely to be from their hometown.

The Conservative Party owes its long political success to its skill in balancing these conflicting instincts – leave or stay – and needs to find a way to do it now. One way of reconciling them over the past 20 years – migration – is now diminishing. If we didn’t want to move but there were new requirements for new jobs, some of them unappealing ones, then the new migrant came in to plug the gap. We brought them in to the places and occupations which were short of people, so we didn’t have to retrain or move around ourselves. Reduced reliance on them means we have to be more flexible and mobile.

There are other smart ways of resolving these conflicts without forcing people to face anything like the disruption of the 1980s. Birmingham and Lyons are cities of roughly similar size. But many more people can get to the centre of Lyons in half an hour because local transport is so much better. It creates a bigger labour market. There are towns stranded on the edge of major cities outside London which would really benefit from such investment. So this sort of transport spend really makes sense and we got some of it in the Budget.

Next, social housing is a real barrier to mobility. I remember from my time as an MP the appalling bureaucratic hassle if you are a tenant of one association and trying to move to another social tenancy in a different area. Easier and standardised rules for easier transfers would make a big difference. Meanwhile, stamp duty acts as a disincentive for home owners to move as well.

Then if we are to boost the prestige and values of vocational qualifications, we could also provide some maintenance loans for residential training courses. The original idea of the apprenticeship was that the apprentice left home to live with his or her new master. Conscription and apprenticeships have both declined as ways of semi-supervised living away from home. Instead, the university has become the dominant model. Rather than trying to suppress demand for university places we should try to enable other forms of vocational training to offer that residential experience as well.

The 2020s can a decade of renewed dynamism and mobility. Our Economic Inquiry is already identifying some reasons for optimism too. In the week of COP26, the happy accident that our renewable energy in wind and tide are distributed across the country will attract economic growth to those areas. Carbon capture and storage means ingenious repurposing of ageing industrial plant.

There is also a surge of young people into the labour market – the baby boom of the first decade of the new millennium will drive economic change just as Thatcherism rode an earlier tide of incoming young people born in the 1960s. Lots of new workers is a fantastic opportunity to move into new jobs in new sectors with higher productivity and higher earnings. The Conservative Party needs an agenda for dynamism and change. It is what the economy needs too.

Robert Halfon: Reshuffles. The soreness of being sacked. And how to bounce back.

22 Sep

The Guillotine

I remember well, when just a few days after the election in 2017, I was called to the Commons Office of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. I was told by her and Gavin Barwell that I had reached the end of the road in my role as Skills Minister.

She said I should go back to campaigning on the backbenches, where I guess she felt my abilities best lay. By the time I had got back to my own Commons Office, the Department for Education Civil Servants had returned my belongings, taken back the DfE laptop and changed the nameplates on the office door to make way for the new incumbent.

When you are called to the Commons Office of the Prime Minister you know it is over. Just like the condemned man walking to the guillotine waiting for his head to be defenestrated. Instead of the crowds baying for blood watching Robespierre’s latest victim, you have the reporters in the Commons corridors and on social media salivating at the latest beheading.

During last week’s reshuffle, journalists were waiting around a set of lifts located near the Prime Minister’s Commons Office. As I was pressing the button for the elevator, one reporter asked me courteously if I would mind standing at the back of the Speaker’s Chair (also located by the Prime Minister’s Commons rooms) and text over the names of any Ministers who were walking through to see him. I, also politely, declined. I explained saying I had better things I could do with my life!

Initially, getting the heave-ho is a pretty bruising experience. You feel sore and ask yourself: why? You have to explain to all of your family, friends and constituents that you are not really useless, and that it is simply the nature of politics. In truth, I was initially incredibly dispirited. I loved the job and I had wanted to be Skills Minister for a long time before my appointment. I had worked especially hard to bring the FE and Technical Education Bill successfully through Parliament in the nine months in the run-up to the election.

But, after a few days, I just dusted myself down and I thought, well, I’ve had a good innings. I had previously attended Cabinet, been Party Deputy Chairman, been made a Privy Councillor and I had just been re-elected MP for the best town in England. Que sera, sera.

I made the decision to stand for election to chair the House of the Commons Education Select Committee, so I could continue to work on education and skills – my passion in politics. Being elected in 2017, against five other candidates and having to canvas votes across all parties, was a special moment in my political life.

As a Committee Chair, you can campaign for the things you believe in, speak to the media more freely and still get things done, albeit in a poacher rather than a gamekeeper kind of way. You are also freed from the tyranny of the phone call from the Number 10 switchboard, which says the Prime Minister would like to see you in his Commons Office…

The ex-Ministers Roll of Honour

I recount all this because I have huge sympathy for those who got the chop last week. Nick Gibb for example, who, whatever my disagreements with him about technical and vocational education (sometimes played out and debated on the pages of Conservative Home), is a man of authenticity and conviction.

He did much to improve standards across our schools, especially literacy. Gavin Williamson, who pushed FE, skills and apprenticeships higher up the political agenda, culminating in the Skills Bill, currently before Parliament.

Robert Jenrick, who understood that our country desperately needed more houses and tried to face off the Nimbys.

Robert Buckland, who did much to strengthen the justice system and toughen legislation for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, politics is a blood sport, but these few examples show, whatever had gone wrong in these Departments, much good was done as well.

Mangoes in the Antarctic, Brussels Sprouts in the Desert.

As far as education goes, the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as Education Secretary is good news. When asked, I once said to Andrew Gimson (of this Parish) that Zahawi is such a brilliant organiser, that he could find mangoes in the Antarctic and Brussels sprouts in the desert. His previous and extraordinary work as Vaccines Minister is a testament to that.

I am sure Nadhim will shake a few trees (much needed) in the DfE and bring both passion and policy to his new brief – especially when it comes to Apprenticeships and Vocational Education. He was previously not just Children’s Minister, but Apprenticeships Ambassador for the Government and did much to improve Apprenticeship take up from big business. All power to his elbow.

Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.

Howard Flight: Priority spending should go towards training the next generation

1 Feb

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I submit that the most important territory to address when managing exposure to the pandemic is to ensure that the next generation is trained for worthwhile employment.

I question whether our reformed apprenticeship system is currently either achieving this or in the present context capable of achieving this. It is here that ongoing government management and funding are needed to finance and manage apprentices through their training courses.

My Livery company, the Carpenters, has for over a 100 years managed the Building Crafts College set up by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher. It has a leading reputation for the quality of its training. It has again just been closed due to the lockdown, although it is managing to continue with online teaching. Here I suggest pupils and staff might be empowered to hold their own vote on whether or not to stay open, with full protective clothing and gear provided. I could see an argument for government involvement in offering and financing apprenticeships.

Last August the Government set up a new online telephone support service for apprentices who have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 outbreak. The redundancy support service for apprentices should ensure they can access local and national services providing financial and other support to help them find a new job when they need this. Apprentices can also search and apply for other available apprenticeship opportunities across the country. I hope these support services are continuing during the lockdown.

Also, employers, large and small, have being encouraged to take advantage of generous new cash incentives designed to create more high-quality apprenticeship opportunities, so more people and especially the young can kick start a successful career. As part of the Government’s plan for jobs employers have being offered £2,000 for each new apprenticeship aged under 25 which they hire and £1,500 for each apprentice hired aged 25 or over up to January 31. This includes taking on an apprentice who has been made redundant.

For apprentices I submit government help and support should go further than this. It would be particularly positive if the Government could provide the finance for an apprenticeship and run a service placing young people seeking an apprenticeship – both those who have been made redundant and those new to the apprenticeship market.

The Government has been taking steps through its Plan for Jobs to both support and protect support jobs and to create jobs with a clear focus on ensuring people have the right skills to get into work. This includes creating more high-quality apprenticeship opportunities to help get our economy moving. The Redundancy Support Service for Apprentices should make sure those who have lost their jobs can get the help and support they need to get back on the path to a new career. These have now been damaged by the third lockdown.

Employers who have apprenticeship opportunities and who are willing to take on a redundant apprentice have also been encouraged to sign up to the new service and to advertise their vacancies. Apprentices who are looking for new opportunities can then see what is on offer.

The cash incentives for employers are in addition to the £1,000 payment for new 16-18 year old apprentices and those aged under 25 with an education, health and care plan. To support particularly young people affected by Covid-19, the Government introduced a portfolio of support covering £111 million cash boost to triple the number of traineeships available across England – the largest ever expansion of apprenticeships. The Government recognises we need to ensure more 16 to 24 year olds can get the skills and the experience they need to enter the world of work.

Michelle Donelan: The Government’s new Turing scheme will open up the world to British students

28 Dec

Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Universities.

When things become too familiar, it can be comfortable to sit back and enjoy their benefits, never stopping to consider whether the old, established parameters still meet the needs of the present day. The thought of losing it becomes a wrench. Even if what is being offered in exchange is clearly better, the original has acquired a totemic nature that goes far beyond its present value.

Such can be the only explanation for the cries of dismay from some quarters that greeted the news last week that the UK government would be establishing a new global Turing scheme for students, following our decision not to continue participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

I can understand why some people feel this way. Many prominent commentators, newsreaders or academics may have used Erasmus, or perhaps their children or friends did. It is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in. However, the simple reality is this: if anyone was creating a student exchange scheme for Britain today, would they really settle for Erasmus+?

Why would we wish to limit an exchange programme to the EU, when the fastest growing, most vibrant and dynamic countries are increasingly found in Asia and Africa – not to mention our old allies in North America, Australia and New Zealand? Some forward-thinking universities have already established exchange programmes, and even campuses, outside of Europe, and I commend them for that, but they deserve our full and whole-hearted support, not exclusion from the Government’s principal funded scheme.

It is also the case, unfortunately, that Erasmus’s benefits went overwhelmingly to students who were already advantaged. The language barrier meant that it was very hard for students not already studying a modern foreign language to take part, to flourish at their chosen university and get the most out of the academic experience. A 2006 study found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, 51 per cent were from families with a high or very high income.

In 2014-15, those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus at a rate 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap was widening. Of course, no-one would wish to prevent such students from studying abroad; but where Government support is concerned, surely it should be about ensuring all students have a fair and equal shot at studying abroad or going on an exchange.

That’s why the Government’s new Turing scheme will explicitly target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country. It will be backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, on apprenticeships, and in schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.

The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and will deliver greater value for money to taxpayers. And it will be named after one of our greatest British scientists: Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing and cryptography, a hero of the Second World War and who himself studied abroad as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton.

Of course, none of this is to decry Erasmus+: undoubtedly, those who took part in the scheme benefited from it. However, the fact is that it is simply too limiting for the global Britain that we aspire to. Of the hundred best universities in the world in the QS World Rankings, only twelve are in the EU. If we have stayed with Erasmus+ it would have cost several hundreds of millions of pounds to fund a similar number of exchanges, not have been global in nature and continued to deliver poor participation rates for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In the future, we will see young people from Bolsover and Bishop Auckland studying in the Ivy League; entrepreneurs from Dudley and Derbyshire learning from the dynamic economies of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and our best budding engineers from Hastings and Hartlepool inspired by world-leaders at MIT or the Indian Institute of Technology. The Turing scheme exemplifies the spirit of Brexit, opening up our opportunities, our hearts and our horizons to the whole world.

Robert Halfon: Who’s up for a Southern Research Group?

18 Nov

Political fusion

Is it really true, as has been suggested over the past few days, that Conservatives can only appeal to either blue-collar voters or the professional classes – but not both?

Those who know me will not doubt my commitment that the Conservative Party should be the party for workers; indeed, I’ve written that about the Workers Party many times on this website.

But, my passion for the Workers Party does not mean that we cannot, nor should not, appeal to the public in cities, as well as towns – the Putneys as well as the Pudseys.

It seems to me there is confusion about so-called metropolitan views. Of course, there is left-of-centre “wokeist metropolitanism” – a school of thought that is unlikely to ever vote Conservative, whatever policies the Government come up with.

But, protecting the NHS, cutting taxes for lower earners, freezing fuel duty, boosting skills and apprenticeships, helping small businesses, offering affordable housing (such as the £12.2 billion investment announced recently by Robert Jenrick) and Help to Buy schemes are policies that transcend the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ divide, as noted by David Goodhart.

Even measures on environmental issues, for example, can have widespread appeal, so long as they are not balanced on the backs of the poor (such as ever-increasing energy bills due to “green” taxes) and are focused on a cleaner, greener Britain (including cleaning up our beaches, tackling litter and safeguarding our forests and countryside). Those who are more sceptical about Brexit might be a bit more optimistic if they could see the reduction in VAT once we’re out of the transition period and we control our own VAT rates.

Similarly, Overseas Aid. At a time when our public services at home are financially strained, spending huge amounts on international development is extremely frustrating to many voters. However, it could be made more palatable if taxpayers money was used to fund thousands of British apprentices to work overseas in developing countries, or even to support our armed forces in some of their peacekeeping roles.

It is dangerous if we are perceived to be identifying solely with one group of citizens or class over another. If the Conservatives are truly the One Nation Party, the Government needs to find political fusion. Whilst, thanks to Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have a solid majority, to be diminished as we are in the great cities like London is neither healthy nor desirable for our party in the long run. Yes, absolutely a Workers Party…but a Workers Party that represents young professionals as much as white van men and women.

Please don’t forget the Southern side of the Blue Wall either

I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t read the words “Red Wall” in a national newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I am as delighted as any Conservative by how we won so many seats in the North. All the more extraordinary given the long-standing Labour MPs that were deposed. I would, of course, prefer it if the media wrote about the “Blue Wall” rather than red.

But, my point is a different one. Both the Government and the media classes should not forget the Southern side of the ‘blue wall’ either. The politicos and the press seem to be under the illusion that the South is paved with gold; that there are no road, rail and infrastructure issues; that every pothole is magically filled, and that no one lives in poverty.

What about the deprivation and lower educational attainment in the Southern New Towns, coastal communities, inner cities, rural coldspots?

The Centre for Education and Youth’s 2019 report, ‘Breaking the Link? Attainment, poverty and rural schools’, found that in areas designated as “countryside living” – a vast proportion of the South West – the correlation between the proportion of pupils on Free School Meals and their attainment 8 scores was 0.58 – the highest of all types of local authority area. In other words, “rural schools have particular difficulty breaking the link between poverty and low pupil attainment”.

Seaside village Jaywick, in Essex, was named the most deprived area overall for the third time in a row in 2019. We also know, from the Social Market Foundation’s 2019 research, Falling off a cliff, that average employee annual pay in coastal communities was about £4,700 lower than in the rest of Britain in 2018. These areas also saw “much weaker economic growth since the financial crisis than other parts of the country” which will demand urgent Government attention as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Does the South not feature in policy making? Perhaps if there was a Southern side-of-the-wall Research Group, then these MPs might be invited to breakfast at Number 10 and policy meetings with Ministers.  Anyone for another MP Whatsapp group? Perhaps we have enough already.

As I wrote in the first section of this article, we must be careful not to ‘politic’ or govern in silos. We should not Balkanise the Tory Party. Conservatives must genuinely be a One Nation party for all our country – not just parts of it.

Home education

Given the name of this website, I suspect many readers are fully in favour of home education if that is what a parent decides. Although personally I think a child is better off at school – not just for daily education, activities, wellbeing and socialisation with other pupils, I also believe in a free society by which we support parents’ decisions about educating their child. Clearly, many parents who teach their children at home give them a wonderful education. However, this is not always the case across the board.

The Department for Education has a duty to ensure that every child has a proper education – that doesn’t stop just because the child is learning from home. There should be a national register or regular inspections to ensure that these pupils are getting the education they need for their futures. Perhaps, each home educated child could be linked to a nearby school for this purpose. These are all matters that my Education Select Committee is considering as we begin an inquiry into home education.

Rightly, schools are held accountable for the learning and environment they provide, whether that be through Ofsted, local councils, the regional school commissioners or the Department for Education (DfE).  So, too, must there be transparency and accountability for parents providing an education to their children at home. The DfE should have a national register of all home educated children and gather data to assess levels of attainment.

In a recent report on home education, the Local Government Association stated:

“Using evidence provided by councils, school leaders and parents, the LGA estimates that in 2018/19, 282,000 children in England may have missed out on formal full-time education – around 2 per cent of the school age population – but this figure could be as high as 1.14 million depending on how ‘formal’ and ‘full-time’ is defined…. gaps in the coordination of policies and guidance around pupil registration, attendance, admissions, exclusions and non-school education is allowing children to slip through the net, with children with additional vulnerabilities – such as social, behavioural, medical or mental health needs – most at risk of doing so.”

Whilst many parents educate their home educated children to the best of their ability, and with much success, there are too many children falling through the cracks. It is right that there are changes.

Ben Everitt: Why the plan for a new technical university in Milton Keynes offers a fresh model for higher education

16 Sep

Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.

We have world class universities in this country, which provide some of the highest calibre graduates around. We must maintain and protect our best institutions. But speaking to businesses in my constituency, they tell me that what they want isn’t always graduates. It’s workers with technical skills, an understanding of the industry they want to work in, and who are ready to work in teams and who can communicate.

That’s why this Government is right to be taking a hard look at the system of higher and further education in this country. It isn’t ‘anti university’ to be asking whether the current system provides the best opportunity for those going through it, for the businesses who will employ them, and for the taxpayer. It’s making an argument for a world class higher and further education system for everyone, in a wider variety of forms.

And when we think about what that looks like, we don’t have far to go. We should take inspiration from one of this Conservative Government’s proudest achievements – Free Schools. These schools, often set up in the poorest areas of the country by innovative teachers and heads, were distinctive not just because they were new, but because they offered something different.

Like the best businesses, they spotted a gap in the market and they provided a solution to fill it. And many of them – such as Michaela Community School, run by the outstanding Katharine Birbalsingh – have been successful precisely because they have maintained this focus over time, rather than doing everything.

We have some of that in higher education, but not enough. In my constituency, for example, the Open University does a brilliant job because it focuses on a specific remit – providing flexible distance learning to those who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, undertake traditional three year full time undergraduate degrees. To adapt the Steve Jobs maxim, it does not try to do everything – it does one thing, and does it well. But we need more innovation from the higher education sector, not more of the same.

It’s why I’m such a strong supporter, alongside my fellow Milton Keynes MP Iain Stewart, of the new proposed technical university in my constituency, Milton Keynes University (MK:U). This institution, modelled on the best technical universities in Germany and the United States, has identified a clear gap, which is the shortage of digital and STEM skills in the economy throughout Milton Keynes. I’m privileged in my constituency to sit in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc – a zone of immense prosperity and economic growth that is home to world class businesses and innovation.

But what Milton Keynes needs is people who can work in these businesses – and who have qualifications that are industry ready. And that’s what MK:U will deliver. By 2021, MK:U plans to be delivering degree apprenticeships in the critical shortage areas of data science, cyber security, digital technology, and management. By 2024, when the university is fully on stream, it will continue to deliver at least half of its provision via degree apprenticeships.

It will also work closely with the new South Central Institute of Technology to deliver high quality technical qualifications at what are called Level 4 and 5 – above the level of school qualifications, but quicker to achieve and more industry-focussed than traditional degrees.

The reason I’m so confident in the success of MK:U is that the team there have been overwhelmed by interest from businesses. Over a hundred major employers, who between them employ over 700,000 people in the UK alone, are backing MK:U, including top-level support from Arriva, Bosch, BT, Capita, Grant Thornton, Network Rail, PwC, Sainsburys, and Santander – who specifically cited MK:U as a key element in its decision to locate its new £150 million Digital Hub in Milton Keynes, and has committed £10 million capital funding and £20 million of in-kind support, to MK:U.

MK:U is backed by Cranfield, the world recognised postgraduate university with a long track record in scientific and business research, and another example of an institution that knows what it does and does it well. Like Cranfield, and like the OU, MK:U will keep to its mission. It won’t offer a wide range of liberal arts and humanities degrees. It won’t chase faddish new disciplines and courses merely to attract students. It will focus on driving prosperity in the Arc, and for the UK more widely.

I know that Ministers in the Education and Communities departments, and in the Treasury are studying the proposal closely as we approach the Spending Review. It has the potential to make a real difference – and to provide a model that other, ‘Free’, universities could follow too.