Education, economy and society (blog comment from

May 11, 2015

Mr Cameron’s Three Million Apprenticeships

Filed under: apprenticeships — sitemananger @ 8:20 pm

During the election, Tory promises to young people never got much further than David Cameron’s election_cameron-h_3253236bpledge to create another 3 million apprenticeships during the next parliament. He provided few other details apart from outlining how the new opportunities would be at least part financed by cutting benefits for unemployed young people.

As well as promising another 3 million, the Conservative manifesto pledged to ‘roll out Degree Apprenticeships’ –by this we assume it meant more Higher Level schemes. Cameron, took advantage of pre-election media attention, launched a new Whitbread  scheme,  announcing he wanted apprenticeships to be on level-pegging with a university degree giving millions more people the dignity of work and a regular pay packet (BBC Election 2015, 09/04/15);   but the new apprenticeships were at the subsidiary Costa Coffee and  were part of a  programme, which as well as teaching how to make hot drinks, included customer service, communication and team-building skills (!)

With the election days away, Cameron also promised that £227 million raised from Deutsche Bank  Libor fines would be used to create 40 000 apprenticeships for 22-24 year olds who’d been out of work for 6 months (The Guardian 28/01/15). In fact the Tories plan to abolish long term youth unemployment, by replacing the Job Seekers Allowance with a US ‘workfare’ style   Youth Allowance, where  failure to accept a training offer or participate in voluntary and community work will lead to this being withdrawn.

Regardless of Cameron’s intentions though, government has little control over how many apprenticeships are created, let alone at what level they are being offered. Unlike the ‘nationalised’ German system –often cited as a successful model to emulate and where apprenticeship numbers are planned by employers, state and trade unions, where training is tightly regulated and where an apprenticeship provides a ‘licence to practice’,   the UK depends on apprenticeships being generated largely by market forces and employer demand.   New arrangements currently being piloted, will defer further, decisions about recruitment and training to individual employers.

With the post-crash economy generating four low skilled, low paid jobs for every skilled, professional or managerial opportunity however, it’s questionable whether most employers want apprentices. This is the main reason why, even if the proportion of young people on apprenticeships has risen, overall numbers have stalled.  Even though the Coalition created over 2 million, many of these have involved existing employers being ‘converted’ to apprentices or have been ‘intermediate’ level, equivalent to the GCSEs that most young people already have and without guarantees of future employment or progression. Rather than needing ‘degree level’ apprentices, employers also have thousands of underemployed graduates that they can draw on

April 23, 2015

Labour’s Techbacc and Apprenticeships.

Filed under: Labour's policies — sitemananger @ 8:26 pm

scot 054 (2)Martin Allen  argues that Labour’s manifesto leaves as many questions as it provides answers

Claiming to offer a new alternative for young people at the upper end of secondary school and in Further Education, Labour’s election manifesto retains some old themes –particularly in its policies for vocational education where it wants to introduce a Technical Baccalaureate and ‘create a route for the 50% of young people who do not go down the traditional academic route’ (Labour Manifesto: 37).

The Techbacc will, Labour says,  act as  ‘gold standard’ qualification at post-16, be accredited by employers and include a quality workplace placement.  This could be considered a welcome change after Michael Gove’s  preoccupation with academic subjects of his English Baccalaureate, his  obsession with returning to  ‘grammar school’  assessment, with end of course written exams, rather than modules and  the  further obliteration of coursework.  In many other respects however, there is a serious danger that past mistakes will be repeated.

A raft of different vocational awards have emerged since the 1990s, GNVQs, Vocational A-levels and finally the infamous Specialist 14-19 Diplomas on which Labour spent millions and which were already stalling by the time Gove came to office and quickly abolished the extra funding for them.  Ironically many schools and colleges have now returned to the BTEC qualifications, that the reforms sought to replace.  

The main problem with vocational qualifications is that they’ve never enjoyed the same status as academic ones and have been seen as only appropriate for ‘non-academic’ students. They’ve also lacked currency with the very employers who are said to need them.  More significantly, the value of vocational qualifications is being further eradicated due to the polarisation of  labour market opportunities and the disappearance of the sorts of ‘intermediate’ jobs they are designed for.  Besides, employers now have plenty of under-employed graduates they can fill these jobs where they do remain!

Most reformers , including the National Union of Teachers, have recognised that either vocational and academic qualifications need to be properly linked together by an overarching certificate, which was the aim of the 2005  Tomlinson report,  or that separate vocational pathways should be abolished completely and vocational study available as an  option linked to a common core of a General Diploma.  Previous Labour governments, reluctant to undermine the status of the GCE A-level  have not followed this advice though. Reformers have also worked within a 14-19 perspective with the main assessment at 18, but, at least for the moment, Labour has accepted Gove’s GCSE reforms and with it the assumption that assessment at 16 should  continue to be the most important part of secondary education.

Labour has said almost nothing  about the detail of  how  the Techbacc will be constructed,  so we’d have to assume that rather than spend money on new ones,  a deficit reducing Miliband government would use either the existing vocational  awards  –those that have not been culled by Gove, or follow the approach of Lord Baker and his University Technology Colleges (UTCs) –although the manifesto says Labour will transform high performing FE colleges into Institutes of Technical Education, because of the Techbacc’s  post-16 focus.

It isn’t clear either, how the Techbacc will exist alongside apprenticeships. While the Conservatives, following the recommendations of the 2011 Wolf Review,   want to replace many  vocational courses with apprenticeships, Labour has signalled its intentions to  also provide apprenticeship opportunities for all young people qualified to do them. It wants to ensure that these run to at least level 3 (A-level equivalent) are also ‘gold-standard’ and that apprentices can progress to new technical degrees.  

Given that  many of the current apprenticeships continue to be  low-skill  and ‘dead end’ this is to be  welcomed, but any future government will not  be able to deliver apprenticeship promises,  let alone rebuild vocational education as a worthwhile option for young people, unless there is an economic strategy to create  higher skilled secure employment, rather than  the  low-paid, low skilled,  ‘zero-hours’ jobs on which the recent ‘recovery’ has  depended.

April 19, 2015

Labour’s Fees Promise

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 4:15 pm


Introduction: a decision at last!

Labour’s long awaited promise of a reduction for all English undergraduate student fees to £6,000 from 2016-17 (so many applicants may defer entry this year) will require speedy legislation in the new Parliament. It will also have knock-on effects on HE-in-FE students and those in the private colleges David Willetts encouraged to charge £6k or less. There are also implications for the Office for Fair Access which ensures that universities currently charging more than £6k agree to improve access.

To counter accusations that these changes will benefit rich students, Labour also announced raising the maintenance grant by £400 per year for those with a family income up to £42,000. This is not much with which to address student poverty but, on the other hand, Ed Balls will tax wealthy parents and other individuals salting away taxable pension contributions to produce £2.7bn annually of the c.£3bn required to bridge the gap in reduced fee funding. So HE staff are reassured they can keep cramming students in to keep themselves in jobs, although maybe a Labour government would also reimpose student number controls. Even if all the money for fees came from tax-payers though, it could hardly cost more than the current wasteful system!

This is because ‘Two Brains’ Willetts lost what Andrew McGettigan called his 2010 Great University Gamble since the government admitted it does not expect to recover more than a third of what will add up to £330 billion unpaid student loans by 2046 when outstanding balances begin to be written off. Repayment terms were not altered to start at a lower threshold than £21,000, although this could still happen. So could a range of individualized repayment schemes varying by course and institution. ‘Two-Brains’ even returned after last summer’s reshuffle with his latest dead-in-the-water wheeze to sell the junk debt to the universities but they weren’t buying – any more than anyone else!   Despite these and other unresolved isssues, UCU and the National Union of Students, which both want fees phased out as in Germany and other European countries, are right to welcome the proposed reduction as a step in the right direction.

 Student or ‘apprentice’?

However, if the Conservatives get back, Labour predict they will raise the cap to £15,000 but why not uncap altogether? Universities that could not compete on price would then go to the wall. Many would collapse into virtual learning centres while other ‘efficiencies’ would further unravel institutions with ‘mergers’ or take-overs, like the Institute of Education by UCL. Management buy-outs or corporate buy-ins are also possible, plus further cost-cutting measures like the closures of under-recruiting/ researching departments that are already happening, or like the attack on pensions in the older universities. In the newer ones there might be more two-year ‘degrees’ taught over four terms. All this would fragment what is left of a more or less coherent HE system. But, if the punters are willing to pay, why not? And, anyway, what else is there for them to do? Answer: become an apprentice!

 Matthew Hancock, then-‘Skills’ Minister at the Department of Business Industry and Science, declared in a DBIS press release 12/5/14: ‘university or apprenticeship will be the new norm’ for all 18+ year-olds. Cameron and Osborne have since repeated pie-in-the-sky pledges of three million ‘apprenticeships’ young people will be forced onto by scrapping their benefits. Similarly, Ed Miliband promised his 2014 Party Conference to ‘ensure as many school leavers go on apprenticeships as go to university’. With the raising of the participation age (in school, FE or employment with training) to 18 this year, this policy consensus presents all English school-leavers with just two options – ‘apprentice’ or student.

 This is not viable for reasons Martin Allen and I explained previously in PSE summarizing our latest report on apprenticeships. For a start, about 40% of 18-21 year-olds are students while only 10% at most are ‘apprentices’. More fundamentally, most employers don’t really need apprenticeships and if they do they run them themselves. So, as was widely reported, when the Coalition gave employers ‘ownership’ of state-subsidized apprenticeships this resulted in less places – especially for young people. Also, despite the lavish advertising for apprenticeships, most 18 year-olds who qualify know they are better off with a 2.1 degree (which most get nowadays) for hopes of the secure and at least semi-professional employment to which they aspire.

 As well as class and ethnicity, there is an important gender dimension to all this since young women now constitute c.60% of all undergraduates (although this percentage would be reduced by excluding courses in education and health – but not medicine and law where women make up c.70% of students). Women are generally better qualified for university entry than their brothers, and also possibly more motivated to live away from their parental home for three or four years before – predictably for the majority – returning there. So students who have qualified want the full student experience and this is one reason the anticipated uptake of local study has not so far materialized, despite the scrapping of maintenance grants in 1999.

There are also fewer alternative opportunities open to young women than to young men. Although women comprise the majority of ‘apprentices’ as well as of students, many of these subsidized temporary work placements are in office, sales and services – stereotypically female areas of employment. Young women soon become aware therefore that this is often Another Great Training Robbery. For these and probably other reasons, young women are applying, passing and graduating from HE in larger numbers than ever before. Yet, even after endless internships (the graduate equivalent of an ‘apprenticeship’), female graduates are even more likely than males to end up overqualified and underemployed. Women are therefore in the vanguard of the Lost Generation, running up a down-escalator of depreciating qualifications.

This plays oddly into the new policy consensus on apprenticeships to include growing the still centrally-funded STEM subjects of science, engineering and maths to support productive industry. At one end, this means state support for academic-industrial/medical complexes sponsored by Big Pharma and the corporations. At the other, University Technical Colleges and various other links with schools, FE and training widen participation to technician level undergraduate STEM courses. Both Coalition and Labour therefore advocate more UTCs while supporting a privately sponsored Technical University of Hereford specialising in manufacturing, defence engineering and agro-technology.

Such plans are related to the need for devolution of the overly centralized market-state revealed by the Scottish referendum. Thus Willetts’ successor in charge of HE was renamed the Minister of Universities, Sciences and Cities. However, England lacks culturally coherent regions of the mainland European type and they will not be constituted by Cameron and Osborne’s rush towards directly-elected mayors as the optimal administrative arrangement for privatised local government services integrated with a no longer National Health Service.

Meanwhile, ‘One Nation’ Labour’s two nation education policies are complemented by a Technical Baccalaureate for the half of 14+ school students who don’t make it onto the academic route. This will lead on to two-year ‘Technical Degrees’ that reinvent Foundation degrees in FE colleges rebranded as ‘Institutes of Technical Education’. This bipartism will channel young people failed by academic schooling into inferior vocational options.

 Students and parents however are well aware of the social hierarchy of subjects and institutions. Many can see that, as Colin Waugh writes,

‘nominal HE is being differentiated (for example, by the concentration of research funding) into a posh bit that workers pay for from their taxes but from which they are largely excluded as students, and another bit which is increasingly vocationalised and privatized and, also, for those reasons, pushed into what is in effect a single FE (or nominally FHE) sector.’

 Many also recognise that grades in mainly literary academic examinations function as proxies for more or less expensively acquired cultural capital. Even if that awareness is dimmed by institutional advertising echoed in mass culture to claim ‘knowledge is power’ to ‘make your dreams come true’/ ‘be what you want to be’/ ‘fly’, etc.  This is belied in the social sciences and humanities where what you know is becoming less important than how you speak and write (and especially spell!). At the top of the university hierarchy this results in the much complained about dominance of a privately schooled elite over nearly all areas of public life.


The fundamental problem is that university promises of ‘employability’ – like those of schools and colleges – cannot guarantee employment. So, fundamentally the perception of ‘the problem’ needs to change from seeing education as preparing students through apprenticeships or degrees for occupations that may not exist when they complete. Instead, a common general but not academic schooling up to age 18 should be linked to the assumption of democratic citizenship with entitlement to free post-compulsory further, higher and adult continuing education at any point thereafter.



Ainley, P. & Allen, M. (2010) Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education, London: Continuum.

Allen, M. & Ainley, P. (2014) Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st century. London: Radicaled.

McGettigan, A. (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto.



March 26, 2015

Young people pile up the debts

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 8:52 am

Recent figures provided by PricewaterhouseCoopers show that ‘unsecured’ consumer debt rose 9% during 2014 –to nearly £10 000 per household, an all-time high.

Though £4 billion of the increase came from credit card spending, £9 billion (around 46% of the increase) came from student borrowing, with PwC estimating graduates who started courses after 2012  will owe an average of £40 000 to £50 000. Student loan repayments are linked to salary levels –currently there’s a £21 000 threshold and because many university leavers will never earn graduate salaries, some estimates suggest that up to 40% of this debt will never be fully paid off.  

Nevertheless, while these long term debts affect future borrowing potential and the chances of getting a mortgage,   a 2014 analysis by Citizens Advice showed more young people turning to pay day lenders to finance their immediate expenditure (this accounted for 62% of the ‘high-interest’ credit used by under 25s) and that 10% of all those with serious debt problems were in the 17-24 age group.

The Citizens Advice report also revealed that 1 in 3 of young people with ‘serious financial problems’ are in work –showing  that while youth unemployment may be officially falling, pay and the work that jobs young  people do, remain serious issues. The under 25s have suffered most from the economic downturn, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies (press report 04/03/15) showing their incomes are still 7% down. Meanwhile according to a Social Market Foundation Report, 25 to 35 year olds have experienced a 36% drop in savings since 2005.  Locked out of the housing market, neither are young people likely to be able to build up any financial equity.

At a more general level, PwC reports the total debt (including mortgage lending) to income ratio now stands at 172%. This is also the highest ever recorded. A future rise in interest rates could have untold implications.

March 23, 2015

Parents climb walls to help their children cheat.

Filed under: Education and economy — sitemananger @ 10:38 am


This astonishing picture from the Indian state of Bihar, published by  several news agencies (also as part of a Daily Telegraph video report), provides a chilling example of the faltering relationship between educational credentials and the labour market.  Some were apparently trying to hand in answer sheets folded into paper planes to the 12th grade pupils sitting their exams 

Ironically it’s in the faster growing economies where ‘education fever’ is most extreme.  Last year, over 2,000 Chinese students were caught cheating during a national exam, using elaborate high-tech gear to do so, with Chinese state television reporting that invigilators detected abnormal radio signals from an illegal frequency during national licensing tests for pharmacists in Shaanxi province.

In South Korea where university tuition fees are the third most expensive out of all the OECD countries, suicide is the largest cause of death among young people aged 15-24 years. Like China, UK policy makers have looked at South Korea for inspiration in the push to raise standards.

In the UK, thank goodness, responses are relatively mild  in comparison,   although a third of parents move house to get into a ‘good’ school catchment area and up to one in four now rely on tutors. Appealing against exam outcomes is now something quite normal, with the number of inquiries questioning GCSE and A-level grades  up by 48% to 450,500 last year, according to exam watchdog Ofqual.

But in the 21st global economy, with education now primarily about ‘passing’ rather than ‘learning’,  even piling up exams isn’t enough to help young people move on in life and as a result, education, unless it is radically changed and given a new meaning,  will increasingly experience a ‘legitimacy’ crisis. Becoming like trying to climb up a downwards escalator, as qualifications become devalued,  you have to climb further and faster just to stand still. Unfortunately  the  Bilar parents have taken climbing to a new level.

March 9, 2015

Alternative education policies

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 8:33 am

The National Union of Teachers has been using the run up to the General Election to promote its policies                                                      

Download  manifesto        COVER MAN_page_001    

Education researchers who support the Union  have published supporting material

Download  reclaiming schools     RECLAIMING COVER_page_001

Downloaded   chapters  from Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley’s  Education Beyond the Coalition still available at


February 27, 2015

Still nearly 1 million NEETS

Filed under: Lost Generation?, YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT — sitemananger @ 10:48 am

While unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds has fallen (down nearly 200 000 compared with a year ago), it still remains much higher than that for the population as a whole. What’s more the figures for the last quarter of 2014 show a small increase.

Latest ONS figures for NEETS (Not in Education, Employment or Training) show a much lower annual decline as well as an increase on the last quarter.  At 963 000, over 13% (almost 1 in 7) of all  16-24 year olds still classified as  NEET, while  over 15% of those 18-24 are in this category.  The discrepancy between the number of NEETs and those ‘unemployed’ is the result of the relatively large number  who are ‘economically inactive’ – over half a million.   Obviously a number of these will have long term illnesses or disabilities, caring or parenting responsibilities and will not be able to work; but many will also have given up looking. The ONS statistics do not include further data on these categories.

However, the figures do show that 60 000 16/17 year olds remain in the NEET category, 4% of this age group and that this has barely changed since the increase in the educational and training participation rate to 17. This may indicate the difficulties in implementing this policy or in cajoling young people into education, if they don’t want to be there.

February 22, 2015

Are apprenticeships a real alternative to university?

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 6:27 pm

Post for  Reclaiming Schools

Schools have been criticised by government ministers and Ofsted for not doing enough to promote apprenticeships, but do they serve as a real alternative to university? Our research shows that most apprenticeships are low-skilled and ‘dead-end’ and don’t guarantee employment after completion.

There are of course some very good schemes that lead to well-paid skilled jobs, but these are massively over-subscribed, with BT and Rolls Royce apprenticeships attracting more applicants per place than Oxford engineering degrees. The employment areas where apprenticeships are more likely to be available are in routine office work, health and social care, or retail. Engineering apprenticeships are still in short-supply and in 2013/14 there were under 15 000 starts in the construction industry. As a result, overall apprenticeship vacancies are still well short of the number of applicants……..

 Read on:

Martin Allen  and  Patrick Ainley have also contributed to the  new issue of Forum  


February 13, 2015

Ed Miliband’s Haverstock speech: Neo-liberal schooling goes rolling on?

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 12:04 am


It’s Ed Miliband’s commitment to limiting primary school class sizes that’s received most attention, alongside his pledge to protect the education budget

Yet in his speech, delivered at his old school, Haverstock in Camden, Miliband also backed more personal, social and  citizenship education, arguing that school should be more than just about passing exams. In doing so he also hinted that Labour would give 16 year olds the vote –an initiative which would surely lead to pressure for greater democracy and more say for young people, over the way schools are run.

But in attacking Michael Gove’s reforms as ‘narrow and backwards looking’, Miliband simply ground-out Neo-liberal Blairite rhetoric about the role of education (the ‘passport to success’) in providing the skills to enable young people to compete in the global market place and reiterated the now redundant post-war social democratic ideals about education’s role in challenging social inequalities and promoting more social mobility.

 Ignoring the realities and implications of economic decline, downwards social mobility, increased poverty and labour market stagnation, this means that schools will  continue to be pushed to ‘improve’ using data-driven targets, reinforced by Ofsted inspections, league tables and with teachers pay being tied to pupil performance.  In rejecting  ‘sausage machine’ schooling, whatever Tristram Hunt may think, Natalie Bennett and the Greens are far in advance of Labour.

February 2, 2015

New league tables bed down Gove’s curriculum

Filed under: 14-19 — sitemananger @ 7:31 am
still running the show?
Still running the show?

Last week’s secondary school league tables began to bed down the first of Michael Gove’s examination changes for 14-19. The 2014 tables excluded performances in resits or in BTEC style vocational qualifications –and gave further prominence to  English Baccalaureate subjects.   As a result many schools found that though their overall performance in exams had improved, they’d slid down the league  and  more are  ‘failing’. By 2016 the tables will be rank schools according to the ‘eight’. This will be performance in the EB plus three other subjects deemed sufficiently ‘rigorous’ (read ‘academic’ with end of course written examinations).

Much of the media attention given to this year’s tables however has been hogged by the top private schools –largely  because they’ve continued to do the old ‘unregulated’ syllabuses for International GCSEs (IGCSE). No longer allowed in tables,  many privates are  now also  failing

The tables have not been designed to regulate these schools however, but to impose a ‘grammar school’ curriculum across the state sector and  more importantly to create new categories of failure and of course,  the option of imposing further sanctions on those that don’t make the grade. 

With the current Secretary of State Nicky Morgan now promising new ‘11 plus’ requirements if the Tories are re-elected,  we’re moving even further to an education system based on regimentation and social control rather than encouraging innovation and social aspiration. This is appropriate for a society where social mobility has gone in to reverse and high rates of youth unemployment have become the norm.

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