When I joined the building press way back in 1983, one of the first assignments for Builders’ Merchants News was an article on training. The building sector, like the economy, was climbing out of recession and we were at the beginning of the high water mark of the Thatcher government.
All was going to be full steam ahead again and the possibility of boom giving way to bust, was as likely as property prices going down, rather than up. Yuppies were braying in the bars while jobbing builders were parking their skips and ripping out houses just months after the last lot of the thrusting, upwardly mobile bunch had paid out for their dream home.
It was a mad, mad world, I thought, as I arrived outside the offices of the Manpower Services Commission and went in and interviewed a bureaucrat in charge of training for the youth of the country. Only his main purpose was not so much as improve the lot of the young unemployed but to keep their rates as low as possible with schemes that fell well short of any sense of permanence.
“What about apprenticeships?” I asked.
“We’ve got to keep rates low and competitive,” he replied.
“But you can’t say that the Youth Opportunities Programme has been anything else than a poor alternative?”
“A lot of nonsense was talked about YOPs,” he insisted.
Following the interview I traipsed down to the West Country to interview a builders’ merchant and get the view at the sharp end, now that YOPs had been replaced with the Youth training Scheme (YTS) which at least gave 12 months’ training.
“We were all for YOPs,” the merchant told me as he left after 10 minutes or so for another, more important appointment. “It meant we could get rid of them all after six months.”
The point of this story is how we had come to so value vocational education and training, that the concept of investing in the young in the form of apprenticeships, had become alien. Countries like Germany had never surrendered to the ‘philosophy’ of poor value, low cost labour as we had and no matter what has been striven for since then in the UK, it appears to be a catching up action.
Earlier this month, we ran a story regarding the latest cuts in funding for vocational courses. The Skills Funding Agency (SFA) had decided to substantially cut its funded qualifications list. It had published a list of 1,477 Level 2 to 4 qualifications which, it stated, would not be approved for funding in 2014/15 and aimed to make funding only available to qualifications of at least 15 credits.
Jonathan Ledger, Managing Director of the National Skills Centre for Materials, Production & Supply (NSA MPS), warned of the likely consequnces. “My fear is that critical qualifications might get arbitrarily excluded from funding. Removing the funding leaves employers to pick up the tab once more which is likely to hit small to medium enterprises (SMEs) users [the] hardest.”
He went on to argue: “In hard times, where government agencies are watching every penny, a cull of the funded qualifications list makes sense, but not where it might negatively affect disadvantaged learners, niche industries or SMEs. A qualification may have a small number of credits but this is not a measure of whether it is a key qualification for industry or that it is popular amongst users. My fear is that critical qualifications might get arbitrarily excluded from funding.”
This all follows cuts in vocational training that the government announced earlier last year which, in some cases, amounted to 20%-30% cuts in financing for courses for 16-24 year olds.
Not for a moment would I day we are retreating to the bad old days of the 1980s but we are showing in this country that education and training can still be a casualty when governments decide they must ‘balance the books’. Being able to read said books, let alone comprehend them, comes a poor second.