Free schools given another boost
As with much of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the vast majority of the announcements on education, childcare and skills had already been trailed over the past week. The most controversial is the announcement that an extra £600M will be made available to establish 100 additional free schools in England over the coming three years, including a new type of specialist maths school for 16-18 year-olds. Another £600M will go to local authorities to help them create 40,000 additional school places to meet increased demand resulting from demographic change.
While the additional funding for schools is welcome, the inequitable distribution of resources is one further reminder of the favourable treatment that free schools receive at the hands of government in comparison to local authority schools.
And the same can be said of Academies. In his speech the Chancellor praised the Secretary of State for Education for his achievement in getting 1,200 schools to convert to academy status in 18 months. However, a hugely influential factor driving this trend has been the enhanced funding package on offer to schools which commit to becoming an academy.
On a more positive note there has been a general welcome for the announcement that many more 2-year-olds from disadvantaged communities will be eligible for the free childcare entitlement of 15 hours per week currently available to 3- and 4-year-olds. The government is currently consulting on an earlier commitment to extend the entitlement to 140,000 disadvantaged 2-year-olds. Today’s announcement will further extend coverage so that 260,000 (or 40 per cent) of all 2-year-olds will become eligible. Leading childcare organisations, such as the Daycare Trust, have welcomed this measure but have also warned that the decision to freeze tax credits and to withdraw the promised above-inflation increase in the Child Tax Credit risks excluding many more parents from the labour market.
The skills announcements in the Autumn Statement were largely focused on the role that a further expansion of apprenticeship opportunities can play in combating youth unemployment. An element of the new Youth Contract involves a commitment to make 40,000 apprenticeships available in the first year of the programme by offering employers an additional financial incentive to recruit a young person to be an apprentice. This builds on an earlier announcement by the government setting out a new initiative offering 20,000 firms with up to 50 employees that don’t currently hire apprentices an incentive payment of £1,500 to take on a young apprentice aged 16 to 24.
Supporting unemployed young people to access genuine apprenticeships is of course a positive measure. However, there are dangers of damaging the “apprenticeship brand” and compromising employers and young people if this option is linked to benefit sanctions under the Youth Contract programme.
The Autumn statement also highlights other policy initiatives on apprenticeships, including a review into quality and standards to address ongoing concerns about the poor quality of a significant minority of apprenticeships. In a contribution to a recently published IPPR book – Rethinking Apprenticeships – the TUC has argued that regulation needs to play a role in building a quality apprenticeship brand by setting some minimum national standards, including a minimum duration, as is the norm in other countries.