LAST AUTUMN the Government launched its industrial strategy, with new look apprenticeships, at Gateshead College in the north of England. The then skills minster, Robert Halfon, announced an extra £170m funding for Institutes of Technology, which could involve an upgrading of  further education colleges in the North. Both Gateshead College and nearby Bishop Auckland, both Ofsted approved, were given the heads-up to deliver given their ‘excellent’ track record in delivering technical, vocational education and apprenticeships.

While some high-tech sectors of the regional economy have been identified, the Government has used its industrial policy to unveil the Post-16 Skills plan, based on the 2016 Sainsbury Review. The Plan sets out 15 new routes into high skilled employment to allow those young people who don’t want to go to university to achieve a technical qualification from level 3 to Foundation degree level 5,

Of-course, this appears to an attractive opportunity for lecturers who work in the region’s 16 under-funded fe colleges. Yet, as the educationalist Martin Allen points out, it remains unclear whether the Government’s strategy will help job opportunities for the 50 per cent who don’t go to university at 18.

Nor is it a new idea. The former Conservative Minister, Michael Heseltine, outlined a similar state intervention package back in 1984, which came to nothing. In 1998 the Labour Government established Regional Development Agencies like One North East to facilitate economic development and inward investment. 10 years later they were shut down. In 2004 New Labour  tasked Lord Tomlinson to conduct an in-depth review which in turn called for the introduction of specialist diplomas for the 14 to 19 year old age cohort.

Back then there had been concerns about retaining the A-level, long seen as the ‘gold standard’ of British schooling. Vocational education enjoyed a low status. Tomlinson’s main proposal was to replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications with a single diploma over a 10 year period. The diploma would have operated at four levels: entry (pre-GCSE), foundation (GCSE up to D grade), intermediate (GCSE at A to C) and A-level.

Students would have been able to progress at their own pace in mixed-age classes. A-level students would have taken more challenging tasks to get higher marks. The diploma, backed by many policy makers, would have been made up of ‘modules’ (short courses) from the existing  A level  and GCSE modules. Students would have opted for one of the 20 pre-designed specialist diplomas. As Tomlinson argued, this would have strengthened   vocational qualifications as the so-called ‘academic’ subjects could have been studied alongside the more ‘vocational’ ones.

All learners from 14 on would have studied ‘functional skills’ – numeracy, communication and ICT and done an extended written project alongside work experience, paid jobs or volunteering. By 2005 Tony Blair shelved the report to avoid upsetting ‘middle England’ who were wedded to the academic A-level. With the election of the Coalition Government in 2010 Michael Gove in his first week as Secretary of state for Education kicked the idea  of 14-19 specialist diplomas into the long grass.

By 2012, the government commissioned Wolfe Report, released its findings about the condition of post-16 vocational education in the UK. Its conclusions were damning. Too many youngsters were doing low level vocational qualifications in colleges with little value to their job prospects. Apprenticeships were too short and bore no resemblance to the old style five-year apprenticeships which had dominated Post-war British industry, commerce and public services. In short, the system was in a mess. It needed radical surgery.

Today 25% of youngsters aged 16 to 19 do A-levels. But 75% are either on high quality level 3 BTEC diploma programmes, ailing apprenticeship schemes or on low level ‘mickey mouse’ training schemes. A minority on Tyneside are able to combine A-levels with BTEC National level 3 certificates in job related areas such as business or technology.

Both the CBI and TUC have long argued that the North East and elsewhere has fallen behind other regions and countries in the level of ‘intermediate’ skills held by the workforce. Some continue to see the German system of technical education and the apprenticeships as the way forward. Certainly there’s a lot of mileage in this argument. Yet at present competition for the available high quality apprenticeships with reputable employers is fierce. Take Nissan, the Wearside car manufacturer: over 1,000 qualified 18-24-year olds applied for a dozen well paid apprenticeships in 2016!

True, 3.5m apprenticeships have been created from 2010. But figures released by the DoE this month show a 61% drop in apprenticeship starts in the three months after the introduction of the controversial employer levy. Likewise, the apprenticeship scheme, hailed as a way of ending youth unemployment, has been slated by the TUC, for having a bias in favour of young people from well-off backgrounds. Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility think tank found that youngsters from poor households took up only one in 10 apprenticeships in the last year.

Yet it is increasingly recognised by some forward thinking centre-left policy analysts like Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley in their book Another Great Training Robbery that several skilled and ‘technician’ level jobs across the economy are vanishing. This is due to further technological changes like automation and digitisation. Where these jobs do continue to exist, they are likely to be filled by university graduates who find themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’.

With the advent of robots in retail warehouses and car plants, the decline of blue-collar/ white-blouse work with potential mass unemployment, it may well be the case that there won’t be enough highly skilled jobs to go around for those who are qualified. Instead, ‘deskilled’ work at the bottom end of the service sector and precarious self-employment may continue to increase.

It’s  likely that growing inequalities, rather than lack of skills, will be the main problem in the UK jobs market of the future. A Labour government of the future may be forced to explore alternative strategies such as the Universal Basic Income Guarantee, being piloted in Finland and Holland and job-sharing to address these issues.

Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and writer.