Guardian article on apprenticeships cuts

Today I have written an article for The Guardian opposing the Government's planned cuts to apprenticeship funding: Britain's young and poor are being hit yet again - this time on apprenticeships.

You can read my article in full below:

Amid all the government’s rhetoric about serving the interests of the many not just the privileged few, the planned cuts to apprenticeship funding – published on the quiet in the middle of the summer recess – are a direct and damaging attack on the life chances of young people. And the hardest hit will be those from working-class, low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Next spring, the funding rates for 16- to 18-year-old apprentices will be cut by about a third – a figure rising to more than half for those living in the most-deprived areas. The two most popular apprenticeships – business administration and construction – face cuts of between 27% and 52%. In my constituency, the local college told me that the new rates equate to an average 38% cut across the board. Inexplicably, swingeing cuts for young people in deprived areas are being handed down alongside increases in funding for learners who are aged 24, live in affluent areas and work for larger employers.

Time and again over the course of the last six years, austerity has hit hardest those living in the most-deprived areas. Following so soon after the scrapping of maintenance grants to support young people from low-income backgrounds into higher education, working-class kids are yet again being left behind, while those from privileged backgrounds escape unscathed.

Why is this not further up the news agenda, and why does the government not even feel the need to explain what it is doing? The answer, unfortunately, is that for far too long apprenticeships have been seen as the poor relation to higher education. Over the course of the last six years, skills provision has been quietly decimated, and although the government pulled back from taking the axe to budgets again in last November’s spending review, I fear that this next round of cuts might be the final nail in the coffin.

Large numbers of apprenticeship-providers have already warned that they will be forced to cut back or even withdraw provision altogether, as their programmes will simply no longer be financially viable. This clearly undermines the government’s pledge to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. The government will continue to point to this target as evidence of progress, but this is actually about quality as well as quantity.

The providers that do manage to survive will have to pare programmes back to the bone, and will not be able to provide the sort of rigorous, high quality-programmes that will equip our young people with the technical skills that they, businesses and our economy so desperately need.

Youth unemployment is already worryingly high at 13.7%, and well over 1 million 16- to 24-year-olds are not in education, training or employment during any six-month period. The skills gap and productivity crisis holding back Britain’s businesses and economy are both well-documented and of serious concern. Surely the government can appreciate how closely apprenticeships and further education more generally ties into its own stated objectives of a dynamic, modern economy that “works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”?

Education and training for over-16s is not just an add-on for the millions of young people who do not follow the neat linear trajectory from school to university – it equips people who are not well-suited to academia with the skills that can transform their life chances. There are very few areas of government policy in which public investment directly leads to such a large dividend in terms of increasing social mobility.

These cuts represent everything that is wrong and unjust about the Conservative government’s pursuance of an austerity agenda: it is the poorest, the most-disadvantaged and those who most need support who suffer the greatest. That’s why more than 50 Labour MPs have written to the apprenticeships and skills minister Robert Halfon calling on him to reverse these misguided cuts.

On the steps of Downing Street, Theresa May promised to “help anybody, whatever your background, go as far as your talents will take you”. These cuts would achieve the opposite effect, and they are a betrayal of young people from working-class and low-income backgrounds.

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