Time to choose: how the next government can boost learning, skills and jobs

12 May 2017

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, Learning and Work Institute

This general election comes at a profound time for our country. Investing in learning and opportunity is essential for our prosperity and fairness in society. We’ve set out plans for making the change we need. 

It is a staple of General Elections that politicians claim this is the most important election in recent times. This time, however, it might really be true. The most obvious change since 2015 (which feels like a lifetime ago) is that we will be leaving the European Union. This means we face some big decisions about the form of Brexit we want: for example, what should our migration policy be?

But the referendum result also brought into stark relief a feeling in parts of the country of a lack of opportunity. Linked to this, living standards remain lower than before the recession: on track for the worst decade for living standards since the Napoleonic Wars. This sense of an economy that for many people doesn’t work is not limited to this country (see the recent US and French elections as an example). But it frames the challenge political parties face.

The election, of course, is about looking forward not back. The key question is how we grow our economy – this is what drives living standards and provides money for public services. The context for doing this is different because of Brexit. But the challenges are perhaps familiar: low productivity, with output per hour one third higher in Germany and the US; low social mobility, meaning family background plays a bigger role in life chances than in other countries; and unequal access to good quality work.

This is what our manifesto seeks to address: how do we build prosperity in Brexit Britain? We’ve highlighted five areas for action:

  • Invest in skills for growth. We welcome the growth in apprenticeships, but it is time now to focus on quality and outcomes rather than the quantity of starts. And we want an equal-value successor to European Social Fund, invested better with less bureaucracy: you can add your support to our campaign for this here;
  • Full employment & welfare reform. Employment is high, but too many people still miss out on the chance to work. We want a clear plan to halve the disability employment gap within ten years, and a review of benefit sanctions including an end to the so-called ‘rape clause’;
  • Low pay and insecure work. Six million people are paid below the Living Wage and there has been a growth in insecure work. Flexibility works for many people, but it is right to consider the balance of rights and support people get. The Government-commissioned Taylor Review should be the start for this. We want to see a Career Advancement Service introduced to give people in low paid work better support to build their career and get on at work;
  • Lifelong learning. Learning brings such a range of benefits, from health, social inclusion, wellbeing, employment and others. So we need a cross-government lifelong learning strategy. This should include protecting in real terms the Adult Education Budget, introducing Personal Learning Accounts so people, employers and the government can invest together, and making learning loans more flexible; and
  • Making migration work. In designing our new migration policy for EU nationals, we need to focus on flexibility and avoid ‘predict and provide’ central planning approaches. For migrants to the UK, we need to have an expectation of learning English and find new ways to fund this, investing in flexible, community-based forms of delivery and the training workforce.

Ultimately election campaigns are not usually the place for detail: politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Nonetheless, the campaign is a chance for parties to set out their vision and new, innovative ways to deliver this. I am optimistic about our country’s future. We have a long history of rising to big challenges. To do so again, we need to make learning, employment and skills our national mission.