The parties’ 2019 commitments on skills and lessons from the past

Blog posts

6 Dec 2019

Becci Newton

Becci Newton, Deputy Director, Public Policy Research

My research often centres on the education and skills system and how this prepares people for the labour market, enables them to build fulfilling careers and to be resilient in changing employment conditions. The vocational system has long been held as the solution to our skills problem and policymakers have longstanding ambitions to reform further and vocational education, improve funding, and increase employer ownership. However, experience shows these things are not so easily achieved.

The current manifestos indicate that all parties again want to see a step change in vocational/technical training. What is already certain is that the further education (FE) sector is yet again set for change. And while improved funding will always be welcome it comes at the cost of flux and uncertainty while new policies are implemented and tested. Below I summarise the changes proposed by each party and round off by discussing the links to previous policies which may provide lessons for how these will work.

Policy area


Liberal Democrats



More Apprenticeship opportunities – but removal of Apprenticeships target

Expansion of high quality opportunities led by National Colleges

Climate Apprenticeships and continued delivery of high quality opportunities

Apprenticeship Levy


Skills and Training Levy to enable employers to use their pot for a wider variety of provision

25% set aside for social mobility in disadvantaged areas

Reform of the Levy so that it supports a wider range of employee training

Additional funding to support BAME, looked after children, and personnel leaving the military

Adult skills – to support labour market (re) entry and employees

National Skills Fund of £3 billion, funding adult learning and co-funding SME training

Levy policy will increase opportunities for in-work training that is not Apprenticeship

Skills Wallets worth up to £10k, topped up at ages 25, 40 and 55 to encourage Lifelong Learning

Levy policy will increase opportunities for in-work training that is not Apprenticeship

Full funding for training up to Level 3

Funding for disadvantaged learners to achieve Levels 4-6 for up to six years with maintenance grants

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)

Union Learning Fund

Support for young people’s transitions


Young Person’s Premium

Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA)

Employer ownership

Central to skills development in all manifestos but there is a lack of acknowledgement of recent developments eg Trailblazers/employer panels to create Apprenticeship Standards or T Level Panels and no consideration of qualifications that are suitable for part-time adult, vocational training.

New institutions

20 Institutes for Technology (STEM)

National Colleges



Taking some of these in turn, we see the perennial ambition to expand the provision of Apprenticeships. However, despite many years of policy tinkering this has proved challenging (illustrated by the Conservatives deciding to not set a target for Apprenticeships, after missing their one million target set in 2015). It is not clear from the manifestos what is so different that this increase can be achieved.

It will certainly require engagement with employers but proposals to shift the Levy funds to other forms of training will disincentivise any increase in Apprenticeships, and without careful design could just serve to further ‘rebadge’ existing provision rather than raise the level of training overall. We saw from Train to Gain that providing funding for Level 2 and 3 could encourage training of employees; we also saw how removing this funding to focus on Apprenticeships could drive up expansion of those.

A more pressing question however concerns what qualifications will be suitable for adult training in the work place. It is largely recognised now that T Levels will not provide the way forward for workplace training as these are designed for full-time classroom-based delivery and similarly, the skills individuals already possess may mean Apprenticeships are not suitable.

Employer ownership is seen at the heart of developments for all parties however none explicitly acknowledges the work employers have led to date on Apprenticeships or T Levels. There is a policy gap now in respect of qualifications that are suitable for part-time and work-based delivery and until filled will constrain some of the new developments. It is also not clear how they will drive the agenda on filling the qualifications gap we now face.

Onto other matters, there are signs that individuals disadvantaged in terms of skills provisions will gain support. This includes those at risk of redundancy or in declining industries (Conservatives) as well as more targeted uplifts and opportunities via the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats.These latter two parties offer the most to individuals in terms of funding and targeted support. Notably both will re-introduce funding for learners in the 16-19 phase – thereby reducing barriers that may prevent individuals from making the best choices for their futures. The Liberal Democrats’ skills wallets stand out in some respects and offer policymakers the means to incentivise lifelong learning as well as individuals the autonomy to manage their own learning activity.

However, to be implemented successfully lessons could usefully be learned from Adult Learning Accounts (which became subject to high levels of fraud) and Individual Learning Accounts (where a lack of awareness constrained this policy from having a substantial impact). Further lessons are likely to be available from Wales where Personal Learning Accounts were launched in September 2019.

My final point concerns the creation of new institutes, an ambition that Liberal Democrats and Conservatives share. The time involved to get these off the ground may mean their impact is not seen for some years. It could therefore risk sustainability. Notably, while not available yet, lessons could be learned from our evaluation of the current National Colleges.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.