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Britain's skills failure shows the hollowness of May’s immigration pledge

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Could any good come from Brexit? Remainers in despair search in vain in these dark days for any shred of hope. What possible gain can come from this morass of fantasy and rightwing myth-making? But if controlling our borders swung most Brexit voters, could there be one upside to that instinctive xenophobic reflex?

Theresa May has always been adamantine in her insistence on cutting net immigration to less than 100,000, defying business and the cabinet. She has been willing to lose essential skilled workers and turn away valuable students to keep Britain hostile to allcomers.

Beyond populist vote-getting, she had only one strong argument to justify her blinkered, numbers‑driven obstinacy. This week she deployed it again in her row with the home secretary, Sajid Javid, over turning away foreign workers earning less than £30,000. He wanted to give business time to adjust, beyond the end of 2020; she wants restrictions as soon as the transition of her Brexit deal ends. Why? She wants companies to be forced to train British workers to do jobs now taken by Europeans. This long and bitter cabinet dispute has delayed the immigration white paper (originally promised for autumn 2017, now postponed until after the crucial Brexit vote next week), to widespread indignation. Immigration lies at the heart of this vote.

What are we to make of May’s sudden passion for training the underskilled? Since 2010 the fate of those not destined for university has been largely ignored – or blessed with sporadic fits of failed, evidence-free policymaking. Universities have been awash with money since their £9,000 fees, with a forest of cranes on every campus building luxury facilities to compete for lucrative students. But the other half of school leavers have faced brutal cuts in everything that might help them succeed.

The great class divide between those who get A-levels and mainly go to university and those who don’t has been deliberately widened since 2010. Further education has been cut and cut again: further‑education colleges have lost almost a third of their income, though they educate and train more 16- to 18-year-olds than schools. These are havens of second chances, where lives are rescued from early failure as teenagers or later in life. Angela Rayner, the shadow education minister, speaks with passionate personal experience about the need to turn the education system on its head so that the left-behind children get priority. Her FE college gave her a second chance as a 16-year-old school-leaver with a baby and no qualifications.

Until she can implement her vision, Whitehall and Westminster will always view FE colleges as unknown zones for “other people’s children”. How many reports, since the 1870s, have bewailed the failure of British technical education? Lip service has been paid by this government to the productivity crisis in Britain, with the nation named this year as the weakest G20 country by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet the government has caused technical qualifications to plummet.

Since 2010, colossal, mostly under-reported damage has been inflicted on skills training. Though Brexit voters were mainly well-heeled oldies from the shires, the result’s real social significance was rooted in a cry of anger from places abandoned by industry without the jobs and skills to recover. Underemployed people in brutally underpaid, gig-economy jobs, with no career prospects, need second and third chances to upskill.

If May was sincere in her immigration policy, she would have hammered on about skills training, reversed education cuts and poured resources into FE. Instead, she mentions training only as a last-resort excuse, a respectable disguise for anti-immigrationism. Not a penny more came in the last budget.

Here are the shocking facts about unskilled Britain that show why we will still need immigrants: since 2010, enrolments for over-25s dropped from more than 5 million to fewer than 2 million. There are 37% fewer gaining construction qualifications, 68% fewer for engineering and 89% fewer for IT qualifications. Health and social-care qualifications are down by 68%. But beyond that, far fewer adults who missed out now get the chance to catch up on basic literacy and numeracy. Every platitudinous minister warns we must all learn new skills, ready to change occupations; but since the ending of grants, adults with families and jobs can’t afford the fees.

Half-hearted attempts at giving status to technical education have failed. The apprenticeship levy on larger employers introduced last year will never reach its target of hitting 3 million by 2020: the number of apprentices fell by 34% in the past year. Meanwhile, companies spend the levy on MBA business degrees for their managers and executives, which, says David Hughes, chief executive at the Association of Colleges, will shortly use up all the funds. Hughes wants the fund restricted to genuine apprenticeships for under-25s.

Highly prized but rare gold-standard engineering apprenticeships for the likes of BAE Systems are now won by high-flyers with good A-levels choosing them over university degrees and debt. Meanwhile, FE Week reveals the scams of private “apprenticeship” providers. Gordon Marsden, Labour’s skills spokesman, warns of all those cherrypicking companies, offering virtually no education. Labour would give everyone a lifetime education entitlement, to be spent on any qualification, at any time in life, to match the party’s free university tuition, equalising academic and technical funding.

University technical colleges for 14- to 18-year-olds – another stab in the dark at technical education – have had a high failure and closure rate. Children don’t want to change school at 14, leaving their friends. It was obvious schools would eagerly offload those who might drag down their league-table ratings, so UTCs became branded for losers. Oldham’s experience was typical: £14m was spent on a new purple building, attracting just 127 pupils for 600 places – and none gained an A-C grade in English or maths GCSE, so it closed.

More than half of all UTC students drop out. Few think the new T-levels will fare any better, as long as A-levels have all the status. With no piloting, evidence or consultation, politicians play with bright new whims for technical education for children not their own.

Meanwhile every community has a local well-rooted FE college, partnering with hundreds of local employers. If you want to know what’s happening locally, visit the FE college. Last week I revisited Middlesbrough’s, a genuine community hub; but, like everywhere else, the college’s funding has been frozen for seven years and it’s getting by on 25% less than schools. On Teesside, where only 21% of the population has degrees, it is the home of second chances: 45% of those who failed at school get their maths and English GCSE here, with a plethora of courses to open new doors. But their lecturers are paid less than schoolteachers, and funding per pupil is even less than cash-stricken schools and a fortune less than universities.

The closer you look, the more fraudulent the claims that Brexit will force employers to train up the technicians of the future. Follow the money to see how little this government values technical education. No cultural shift will break the great education class divide until we have a government willing to invest more, not less, in those who need it most.

theguardian

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