Apprenticeship starts down

Official figures show a 2.7% decline in apprenticeship starts  for the period August 2015-2106 compared to the previous year. It’s the fall in participation rates for those under 19 (7%) that is most significant. The number of 19-24-year-old starts have also fallen, while the number of adult starts is narrowly up.

More specifically, the number of under 19-year olds starting Intermediate Level (GCSE equivalent) apprenticeships rather than continue with full-time school or college course is nearly 10% down, no doubt reflecting the low value of these schemes – many not leading to permanent employment or progression to Advanced level, but also the fact that most young people have already reached GCSE standard at school.

The number of Higher Level apprenticeship starts is up significantly – to over 36 000, but Higher Level starts still make up less than 8% of total apprenticeships and at a time when university is more popular than ever, only around 10 000 of those starting a Higher-Level apprenticeship are below 24.

This last year has seen the introduction of an employer levy and it’s too early to assess the success of this controversial scheme. But it’s possible that apprenticeships are now past their sell by date and the government is looking to new T-levels to mop up those young people not planning on, or not able to afford university?  Though the first T-levels (full-time college courses) are not planned to start until 2020.


Labour – past, present and future:

Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen (in the next edition of Post-16 Educator)

Labour’s pedagogic project

Like other social democratic parties, Labour was established in opposition to revolutionary communist parties. Backed by the trades unions seeking a better deal for their members, it sought to reform society in the interests of working people through governments that socialised the means of production and exchange to gradually and legally expropriate the employing class.

This Parliamentary Socialism was neither revolutionary nor necessarily socialist since it did not give workers control. Instead, it relied upon an alliance across the then-main division of knowledge and labour in the employed population by which middle-class professionals administered the expanding welfare state introduced after 1945 on behalf of the industrial manually working class. The administration of state education, for instance, was largely delegated to Local Education Authorities and the content of the curriculum and its delivery left to teachers.

For nearly 30 years after 1945, the reconstruction of the economy, using Keynesian demand management and subsidised by the remnants of Empire, enabled virtually full employment with progressive taxation to finance the introduction of the Welfare State. With economic growth the expansion of white-collar, managerial and professional employment allowed limited absolute upward social mobility from the largely skilled sections of the traditional manual working class; first through the grammar schools introduced in 1944 and then the comprehensives from 1965, augmented by expanded further, higher and adult education.

Comprehensive reform was structural rather than curricular, leaving the new schools in academic competition with remaining grammars and private schools, the latter linked by the exam boards to the antique universities. Academic education remained dominant as successive governments failed to establish technical training comparable with other European countries, notably Germany. Compared to its competitors, Britain’s apprenticeship system, though extensive, remained both ad hoc and inferior.

Education assumed a new significance for Labour at the end of the long boom. James Callaghan’s 1976 ‘Ruskin Speech’ called for greater accountability and more emphasis on ‘vocational skills’. Meanwhile youth training schemes were hastily cobbled together to mop up rising youth unemployment – the school-leaving age already raised to 16 in 1972/3. Yet, further and then higher education continued to expand with Labour’s 1965-92 polytechnic experiment doubling the number of HE students.

Young women particularly progressed from school and college to gain higher qualifications, whilst many young men joined a resurrected reserve army of the permanently unemployed. This reflected further erosion of the manual-mental divide amongst employees as new technology was applied to increasingly automate and deskill industry, at the same time generalising office and service work.

Simultaneously, as nationalised industries were privatised and state spending on services rolled back by the Thatcher government, a New-Market State was improvised in which responsibility for delivery contracts out whilst power contracts to the centre. This was also a new form of the mixed economy now indiscriminately mingling the previously distinct and mutually sustaining public and private sectors of post-war corporatism. This will not easily be reversed since control over the national economy has been ceded to global capital, to which the now largely service-based and financialized UK plc remains indebted.

 Education without jobs

New Labour attempted to accommodate the national to the global economy, obscuring the abandonment of gradual social democratic reform by espousing ‘modernisation’. This meant adopting Thatcherism but with some redistribution. Much of this redistribution was funded on debt, both personal (as with university fees) and institutional, for example through private-public partnerships. So, when the bubble burst in 2008, there was nowhere for New Labour to go.

Nevertheless, investment in ‘human capital’ continues to substitute for economic investment in desperate hopes that more ‘skills’ (actually qualifications) will somehow produce jobs and advance individual careers, despite general downward social mobility replacing the previous limited upward social mobility. Meanwhile, the reserve army of labour has again been recast – from permanently unemployed into low wage, precarious employment.

New middle-working class youth, desperate for secure semi-professional employment, pay tripled uni’ fees to run up a down-escalator of devaluing qualifications. They are spurred on by top-down policies for ‘raising standards’ in schools, supposedly creating equal opportunities to be unequal. This has significantly altered the culture of primary and secondary schooling, even before austerity ransacked school services, whilst Further and Adult Education faces potential collapse and several universities near bankruptcy.

The May government, supported by financial and largely US-based capital against pro-European remnants of UK’s productive capital, now seeks to institutionalise this race to the bottom with its Brexit strategy. This is another desperate move towards a third new form of the state that can be called the Consolidation State, since it would consolidate debt through continuing austerity, accompanied by the privatisation of remaining services, reducing those who can’t pay for them to penury.

Back to 1945?

In reaction to this austerity and against ferocious resistance within his own party, Jeremy Corbyn has restored Labour’s electoral chances – and in a ‘progressive alliance’ with Nationalist parties and Greens may well have been in government! Evoking the spirit of the 1944 Act and the comprehensive reforms that followed, Corbyn’s Labour has promised a ‘cradle to grave’ National Education Service. More specifically, the 2017 manifesto presented policies for reversing spending cuts, improving pay for teachers and other education workers by ending the cap on public sector pay, restoring accountability and encouraging co-operation rather than competition between schools, a major review of primary school assessment, better technical education and apprenticeships and, perhaps, most notable of all, the ending of university tuition fees.

Nobody would dispute the significance of these commitments but 2017 is not 1945. However, Labour thinking on education assumes that education reform takes place against a background of an expanding economy, rather than a declining one; also, one that requires a more highly skilled and highly educated workforce. Another variant of this is that improvements in education help grow the economy which then contributes to upward social mobility seen as ‘social justice’.

This ignores the fact that in the polarised and redivided labour market sketched above, the only social mobility is downward. Labour does not recognise the changed occupational structure following the latest applications of new technology in employment – the Manifesto brushes away any possibility that robotics and AI may worsen employment prospects. Instead, following repeated failed efforts to modernise apprenticeships, it joins the cross-party and professional consensus on ‘rebuilding the vocational route’ along the lines suggested in the Sainsbury Review, not understanding that Cameron’s promised three million apprenticeships are mostly low-grade, low-skilled, and temporary placements in low-value service sectors because there is insufficient demand from employers for anything else.

Therefore, far from being caused by easier exams, or being the result of deliberately dumbing down standards, the increased level of performance (Gove’s ‘grade inflation’) follows from teachers at all levels teaching a competence curriculum to young people who study harder but learn less. More jobs demand degrees but more graduates end up ‘overqualified but underemployed’, pushing those without degrees further down the jobs queue.


As globalisation stutters, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have countered with an economic strategy based on intervention rather than the free market. Whether, without an international stimulus, this can ‘take back control’ to more than temporarily delay the changes in employment outlined above is doubtful. This threatens a prolonged crisis of legitimacy for education and for Labour. Failure to confront it will lead to disillusion amongst the student and various other young and service-sector unionised enthusiasts who with many others coalesced around the Party in June 2017 in hopes of ending austerity.


GCSE – do we really need it?

This year’s GCSE results have been met with (deserved) criticism over the new grading system, the changes to assessment and the emphasis that continues to be placed on ‘high status’ Ebacc subjects at the expense of others. All of these have resulted in further pressure and anxiety for the ‘exam generation’ – yet discussion about whether extensive assessment at age 16 is still necessary and if it isn’t, then what should take place instead, has been largely absent.

In the late 1980s, GCSEs established themselves as the main leaving exam, ending the division between academic GCE O-levels and non-academic CSEs.  GCSEs, unlike the O-levels had much greater input from teachers (reflecting the more general influence that educational professionals still had over policy) and a much fairer method of assessment – many practitioners were pleased they drew on the pedagogy of CSE rather than the GCE.  Now, forty years later, following Michael Gove’s reforms they resemble the O-level.

Critiquing the current format and trying to ’reclaim’ GCSE is essential, but it’s also important to question whether in times when the school leaving age is now effectively 18, it’s necessary for young people to jump through a set of hoops at 16. It’s true that many that students do ‘leave’ their existing schools at the end of KS4, partly reflecting the antiquated system of provision in this country, but also the increasingly selective nature of post-16 education where more and more students are not able to enter their own school sixth forms -but few 16-year olds enter the labour market or start apprenticeships.

Like the SATs, GCSEs are primarily used to rank schools and as a result, large numbers of people in the education sector have a career or business interest in maintaining the status quo. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be assessment at 16 – it’s just that that we don’t need this type.

A-level. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This years A-level cohort is untitledthe first to take the new style qualifications – part of wider changes introduced by Michael Gove to make exams ‘fit for purpose’.  Gove ended the AS level as a half way point to a full award and set strict limits on the amount of coursework – most subjects would be assessed by a final exam.  Many educationalists considered this a step back, an attempt to re- establish the A-level as a ‘gold standard’ qualification for a smaller number of students. Many teachers complained about the way in which the reforms had been rushed through, with a lack of new text books, that options were being reduced. Many students have complained about the stress of being ‘guinea pigs’, unsure about what they should be revising and the absence of any ‘past papers’.

These fears have been unfounded. There’s been a very slight fall in the number of students that have achieved an A or A* for the new syllabuses but the overall pass rates have barely changed. Confounding critics, but under pressure to ‘perform’, schools have continued to ‘teach to test’ learning how to get their students to jump through new hoops; but the holding up of grades is also because Gove instructed qualifications watchdog Ofqual to adopt a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach based on the previous year’s performance and on student predictions. According to Gove, this would prevent ‘grade inflation’ – ending a pattern where pass rates for all levels had continued to increase.  By implication it also meant that achievement levels would not fall if new ‘more demanding’ examinations were introduced – though this would not rule out changes in the relative performance of individual schools  –  improvements in one school’s results can only be at the expense of a fall in another’s.

As a result, the A-level continues to march on. With over 750 000 entries it’s still the main qualification for university. It’s true that about 30% of those entering HE have a vocational qualification, but to enter even a ‘middle’ ranking university a student would need to combine this with A-level grades.  Entries for Applied A-levels, which evolved from the old GNVQs have slumped to a few thousand, while the planned T-levels  remain on the back burner.

It’s also clear, despite the fees, the debt and attempts to talk up alternative routes, that school leavers continue to head to university in huge numbers – even before this year’s ‘clearing’, during which students are now able to ‘trade up’ if their exam results are better than expected, there has been no significant decrease in the proportion of school leavers accepting university places – the reported 2% total decline being the result in falls in adult and part-time applicants. As there are still only a handful of higher level apprenticeships they don’t represent an alternative and there is no real evidence of employers increasing the number of school leavers they recruit.












Capital’s ‘reserve army’ (part 2)

UK unemployment continues to fall, it’s now at 4.4%, downloaddown from 4.9 % a year ago. Yet much more significant is the greater increase in the size of the workforce. For example, the most recent monthly ONS data shows a fall in unemployment of just under 160,000 over the year, but a 340 000 increase in those working.  The increased availability of part-time work with irregular hours continues to attract some of those previously ‘economically inactive’ – not in work, but not looking for it, the ONS figures show a 90 000 fall of people in this category, but the data also shows a 126, 000 increases in non-UK nationals from the EU working in the UK (bringing the total to 2.37 million). So, while unemployment may be the lowest since 1975, the UK labour market isn’t ‘tightening’ – a recent survey shows employers received an average of 24 applicants for unskilled vacancies and 19 for medium skilled. 

Karl Marx used the term ‘reserve army’ to describe the pool of semi-employed or unemployed workers who were the consequence of ‘overproduction’ and the rising organic composition of capital (the replacement of labour by machines).  Even if the concept might be a useful one, the nature of this modern reserve is now rather different. Rather than being part of Marx’s impoverished ‘lumpen’ workforce for example, research shows that migrant workers are likely to be overqualified (compared with UK nationals, a greater proportion have degrees) for the jobs they are recruited.

With new jobs as likely to be low-skilled as highly skilled (around 5 million people in total, reporting they are ‘over qualified’ for the jobs they currently hold) then the existence of large reserve army will severely limit increases in wages – as inflation rises, ‘real wages’ are now starting to fall again and predicted to fall further. Wages are also being dragged down by changes in employment status. The ONS data shows nearly 900,000 people on zero-hours contracts, despite a growing campaign against them, with 15% of people now declaring themselves ‘self-employed’ a category synonymous with low-pay.  



Brexit and skills shortages

Alarm bells continue to ring about the implications of (a hard) Brexit 0E29785B00000578-0-More_than_a_third_318_000_of_the_872_000_Eastern_Europeans_worki-m-5_1432072882386for UK skill levels, future growth and prosperity.  By the end of 2016 there were 2.2 million working EU migrants -7% of the labour force.  Most recently there’s been specific concern about the effect of Brexit on an already understaffed NHS. EU immigrants make up about 5% of NHS staff (10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses).

Migrants from the original 14 EU member states are more likely to be in better-paid employment, requiring higher skill levels – such as the business and finance sectors. By comparison, despite significant representation in professional and managerial categories, later Eastern European migrants provide a regular supply of semi and unskilled labour. In the ‘hotels, restaurants, and accommodation’ sector they make up I in 8 of the workforce and in construction over 7%.  According to one survey, (CIPD, Facing the future 2017) 40% of EU migrants could be considered ‘over-educated’ for the work they do, compared to 15% of UK nationals (evidence shows that, overall, EU migrants tend to be more highly qualified than UK workers).

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has given Brexit a socialist tweak, telling the BBC (23/07) that the “wholesale importation” of workers from Eastern and Central Europe has been used to undermine pay and working conditions particularly in industries like construction. CIPD report that one in seven employers consider EU nationals have lower expectations about pay and conditions, but they also regarded them as more productive.

It isn’t clear however, whether wages would rise if EU migration was curtailed. According to the CIPD study, a quarter of employers reported difficulties in recruiting UK born candidates for semi-skilled and unskilled posts.  To ease shortages, employers could recruit from ‘underutilised’ groups like young people. Unemployment rates for young people are still double that generally – 1 in 8  of all 19-24 years olds are still NEET, but many UK employers have been reluctant to offer proper apprenticeships.

With new ‘flexible’ working arrangements in the 24/7 service sector, employers will also continue to recruit from groups  not wanting to work on ‘standard’ contracts because of family and caring responsibilities (over 4 million part-time women workers, don’t want or can’t do full-time employment for example) and almost a million full time students currently work part time. It’s clear that this pool of labour is not yet exhausted.

Employers could also automate. While it is difficult to replace workers with machines in many low skilled ‘non-routine’ jobs like serving in restaurants or in-home care, many other jobs could be, however the CIPD survey found little concrete evidence of any plans to do this.  Uncertainty about the post Brexit economic climate may be a factor, but the UK’s historically low rate of capital investment (compared with other countries) is probably more significant.  In other words, for key sections of UK business a low-skilled, low-pay business model is the most preferred and a hard Brexit would result in a labour shortage, as much as a skills problem. Without a migrant ‘reserve army’ many employers may not be prepared to keep businesses running at all.

The Bac is back (or is it?)

More than a year after it was supposed to, the government has finally published its response on Implementing_the_English_Baccalaureate_     

Since then, Nicky Morgan has been replaced by Justine Greening and the Ebacc has been slammed by just about everybody from teacher unions to employer organisations.  Though government only sought  views about the implementation and delivery  it has been  forced to admit that many of those who did respond want major reforms or continue to oppose the qualification.

Back in 2016, the government was still insisting that Ebacc participation would be a requirement for 90% of Key Stage 4 students by 2020, but since then the participation rate has remained at under 1 in 4 and as a result, schools have prioritised their Progress 8 scores instead. The Tories now ‘aim’ for 75% by 2022, but even this would appear optimistic – with entry numbers for modern foreign language (an Ebacc requirement) going backwards.

The Department for Education now also admits the Ebacc is not suitable for some students, notably those taking vocational options in university technical colleges, studio schools and further education colleges.  While it will change the way in which Ebacc participation and completion data is reported in school performance tables, it isn’t going to tell Ofsted to prioritise or set Ebacc benchmarks for inspection grading.

Published at the start of the summer holidays, this is a weak  and uninspiring  response from a government trying to restate its flawed manifesto commitments, but with little confidence it can provide adequate resources or recruit enough teachers to get anywhere near implementing them. Opponents now have a huge opportunity to put forward curriculum alternatives.