Nothing is what it seems: no sooner than it is announced than now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t money is whisked away. From today, the offer seems to be a chance for 11 million adults to gain new qualifications at no cost to themselves under a lifetime skills guarantee. Here comes yet another grandiose “build back better” pledge from the prime minister, breezing out sums with a lot of noughts on the end. But when the news moves on, under-the-counter cuts by the Treasury pare the funds away again.
There is a clear pattern: Boris Johnson promised Britain would become a “global science superpower”, a wise ambition since the UK is good at life sciences, despite low spending on research and development. But this week “catastrophic” cuts in grants put 18,000 research jobs in peril, sending the science budget into reverse.
Or take the promise to roll out fibre broadband to hundreds of rural areas: yet from Wednesday, 2m fewer homes will be eligible for vouchers, just as more people set up businesses in the countryside. Or the green homes scheme, destined to provide hundreds of thousands of jobs retrofitting old homes to cut carbon emissions: now that is suddenly scrapped.
The lifetime skills guarantee disguises other funds shaved from further education, as ever the Cinderella of British education. Johnson promised “pioneering reforms” to “reshape the training landscape”. But Thursday’s skills guarantee, promising everyone the right to retrain to level 3 – the equivalent of two A-levels – is cheese-pared to exclude 9.4m jobs.
There will be no retraining in arts, media, retail, hospitality, travel, tourism or leisure – the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, yet according to House of Commons research for Labour ineligible. Anyone trying to retrain will find themselves barred if they already have a level 3 or above. What’s more, cheese-paring again, FE Week reveals that more than half the courses on offer fail the Department for Education’s own definition of a level 3 qualification.
Quietly, promises made to FE colleges are rescinded. The prime minister last September loudly pledged £1.5bn to improve their capacity, yet now the Treasury is clawing back millions from colleges that couldn’t run full courses during lockdown. The Association of Colleges says 45% were already in financial trouble pre-pandemic, and will now be crippled, just as T-levels, the new technical equivalents to A-levels, are starting to be rolled out.
The government hails apprenticeships, yet in the two years before the pandemic more than 150,000 were lost. Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, points to the £330m the Treasury seized from the apprenticeship levy, instead of creating more places. With another £80m taken away from Get Help to Retrain, which was wound up early, this £95m over two years doesn’t look so “new”.
FE funding has fallen by 20% since 2010, and the number of colleges has dropped by a quarter, with 9,000 fewer FE teachers (who are paid £7,000 less than school-based teachers), Green said in a speech at Swindon College this week. As for levelling up, the greatest fall in FE students has been in the north-east and the west.
Meanwhile, the government’s Kickstart scheme promises just 250,000 placements for the 600,000 young unemployed people, of which fewer than 5,000 have yet been created.
Labour’s Jobs Promise guarantees all 16- to 24-year-olds education, training or work, reprising its 1997 New Deal – which was a phenomenal success in reaching a lost cohort of young people. When Labour left office in 2010, its Future Jobs Fund, making the same promise to young people stricken by the 2008 crash, was axed within a month by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. As is the case now, business was struggling in that recession, so most of the jobs created for young people were in the public sector or charities. But today many of those workplaces, stripped bare by the austerity years, no longer have the capacity.
Despite much pious talk of valuing skills, little in the government’s plans suggests this generation will escape the same fate as many young people in the 1980s, whose lives were permanently scarred by unemployment.
From now on, whenever you hear this government make a big promise, follow the money. Remember the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ verdict on the recent budget: it warned that spending plans show the public sector plunging into another austerity era, with cuts of 8% in most departments. That means big spending announcements are mirages; the money will always be clawed back. Politically, the big question is how long will it take people to find out.