It’s Education, Education, Education for the LibDems

15 April 2015

The headline pledge of an extra £2.5 billion for education is an attempt by the LibDems to lay down a clear pledge that presumably will be non-negotiable should they be in coalition discussions. The pledge trumps school spending commitments by both Labour and the Conservatives and so is a positive start to their manifesto. However there is much more to be welcomed.

Both NIACE and Inclusion are pleased to see the commitment for “a cross-party commission to secure a long-term settlement for the public funding of reskilling and lifelong learning.” This was the central ask of NIACE’s 2014 Manifesto (Skills for Prosperity) where they called for a cross party review of the UK’s skills needs and the funding issues faced by colleges and training providers.

It would be an odd LibDem manifesto that did not include proposals to devolve more powers and finance to the local level and this manifesto does not disappoint. They want to “devolve more economic decision-making to local areas” and (amongst other functions) prioritise “skills training and back-to-work support.” They will do this by devolving more power and resources to “groups of Local Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships” and starting with a reformed and improved Work Programme “in partnership with English local government”.

In common with other manifestos boosting the numbers and standing of Apprenticeships is a key feature for post-16 education. They commit to: 200,000 Apprenticeship Grants for Employers; expanding degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships; and aim to double the number of businesses hiring apprentices. In addition there are welcome commitments around boosting the apprentices from a BAME background and identifying and tackling skills gaps.

A further cheer for NIACE and Inclusion is the statement that the LibDems want to “Help everyone in work on a low wage step up the career ladder and increase their hours … with tailored in-work careers and job search advice.” This reflects NIACE’s call for a Career Advancement Service. No specifics or budget is given but at least the issue is recognised.

A final detail worth reporting which does not get any coverage in other manifestos is their commitment to review benefit sanctions procedures in Jobcentres. Inclusion has highlighted the increasing use of sanctions and called for sanctions to be suspended for disabled people. The LibDems are clear that “they [sanctions] should not be used to cut benefit expenditure deliberately”. A direct criticism of their Coalition partners.

Of course, there is a big “however” to the series of sensible and welcome commitments and proposals. The manifesto is written with coalition negotiations in mind. To that extent no end of commitments can be included, but the key issue is what gets dropped in the coalition horse-trading? We hope not the policies highlighted here.