Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
On Friday, the Chancellor announced that the government had sold off £13 billion of mortgages from Northern Rock. It was the largest ever asset sale by a government in Europe and it turned the taxpayer a profit. But it was also symbolic. It bookends the financial crisis that cost the taxpayer £133 billion, and shows how much progress we have made in clearing up Labour’s mess.
But this isn’t all that the Government is about. The Conservatives have a vision for the future and are thinking about and planning for future generations. Nothing typifies this better than the Government’s skills agenda, and I’m proud to have been chosen by the Prime Minister as his Apprenticeships Adviser to help drive this change.
For the first time in a long time, people are giving apprenticeships the respect they deserve when they discuss them. This is a good start, and it shows that the Government has been busy with this work since 2010. It’s the start of a sea-change by which it becomes standard practice for young people to begin their careers in apprenticeships, when a few years ago it was often something few and far between.
I’m excited about this. But amidst this atmosphere of optimism about how we can revolutionise skills training it’s important to remember where we’re coming from. For far too long, apprenticeships were considered second-rate, and the word itself drew a strange mix of nostalgia for the past and negativity going forwards. With this feeling about, a national skills system akin to Germany’s, a country that has long focused on apprenticeships, was a thing of fantasy.
It was a situation egged on by government’s insistence on ever-more young people going to university. Too much focus on this led to the neglect of young people who didn’t go, and devalued skills that didn’t fit into the university conveyor belt. And it even failed many of those who were encouraged to go, by offering them poor qualifications that employers didn’t respect or value.
It also ignored the fact that not everyone is suited to, or enjoys, the kind of academic work that is done at A-level and university. By focusing so single-mindedly on one outcome, huge numbers of young people are failed. Variety is the key in education provision, because everyone’s good at different things and every company needs different skills. Variety is something that mixing on the job and classroom learning achieves a lot better than academic syllabuses doe on their own. To crow-bar people down one path is to squander the vast amount of energy and enthusiasm that young people have. On the other hand, there are boundless rewards for an economy that can channel and release it.
We’ve already seen glimpses of the fate that awaits us if we don’t change course. In parts of the country away from the dynamism of the London economy, we’re vulnerable to becoming a low wage, low skill economy. A combination of fallout from decades of poor skills strategy in government, an economy over reliant on London, and a welfare system that subsidises companies paying workers too little and skimping on training has led to the need for a radically different approach.
That’s what we’re delivering. Already, we’ve raised the standards of existing apprenticeships by abolishing suppliers of bad apprenticeships and getting rid of bad qualifications. In the process, we’ve defied critics who told us that if we wanted to boost the numbers, we couldn’t improve standards. All these critics ignored the impact that occurs on the demand side when you improve quality and restore confidence. We showed that if you can provide employers and young people with a quality qualification that offers them the chance of improving their workforce and their careers, then people will leap at the chance.
We’re a pragmatic Government. We know that sticking plasters to cover up low wages and low skills don’t work, but also that a hands-off approach doesn’t work. We’re targeting intervention at the source of the problem, and the apprenticeship levy will be the marquee policy of this drive. Under current plans, companies will pay the levy into a ring-fenced pot and spend that money on apprenticeships. This will cause an explosion of demand and a revolution in skills investment.
This is vital, because all businesses and employees gain from investment in skills, and it’s therefore absolutely right that all businesses large enough should pay for the high-skilled workforce that Britain needs.
That apprenticeships are at the centre of the Government’s long-term economic plan shows that we’re planning for the future and are committed to spreading opportunity across the entire country. The investment that the Government’s policy will trigger will raise productivity and wages, and make sure workers are ready for the jobs of the future.
Bringing learning more clearly into the workplace will also ingrain a sense of progression and constant improvement into business. That means a dead-end for dead-end jobs and a change in culture that will secure Britain’s economic future as a high skilled economy. Over the coming years, skills investment will rise and we will put years of policy failure right, all because this Government means business on apprenticeships.