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Ben Bradley MP: 'Retraining Revolution' is music to my ears

This week we’re told that Ministers are planning a ‘retraining revolution’ as part of the response to COVID-19. If so, that is music to my ears and will be an absolutely key factor in our economic recovery.

So many sectors have struggled throughout lockdown, but not all. Some have taken off and others will do so soon when the promised ‘levelling-up’ investment arrives. If the answer is what I hope it is; to supercharge that agenda and to get building infrastructure around the areas of our country that most need it, then jobs will also be created for those areas. We’ll need a skilled workforce, and we’ll certainly have the people available. Sadly, unemployment is going to be sky high. We need therefore to equip those people with the training and support they’ll need to get back in to work as quickly as possible.

I’ve written about this a lot, talked about it in the Commons and submitted thoughts to Number 10. The Blue Collar Conservative caucus has been a great source of ideas on Further Education, skills and ‘levelling-up’. As well as the short term-goal of job creation and rebuilding the economy, we can take this opportunity to invest and fix the longer term issues of educational inequality; the poorer life chances of working class kids in communities like Mansfield. There’s lots we can do. In the General Election we announced a £3bn National Skills Fund, which can add to the National Retraining scheme that has been going for a while. The NRS needs a clear purpose and a focus on outcomes, because as yet I’m not exactly sure what it’s achieved. Let’s use these platforms to bring in the training providers and the colleges and use it to roll out courses in the key areas that we’ll need. Let’s tie it together with the online Skills Platform that we launched during lockdown, so that any adult who has been put out of work due to COVID can access free training in key sectors either from home or via a local provider.

Every adult should have a right to a minimum level of training. The Augar review, published a year ago, recommended a right to ‘level three’; ie an A-Level or equivalent. We can upskill those who most need it by offering this opportunity. It’s our poorest communities that have the highest proportion of people with no formal qualifications. We already offer level two (GCSE) English and Maths to help people get the basics, but we can expand that and offer A-Levels, BTecs, NVQs and others at level three to boost employability. Let’s make these qualifications in key growth sectors available to any adult who is not yet qualified to this level, and let’s push those courses out through our FE and training institutions. Upskilling the workforce in our poorest communities can help attract jobs, and help local people to fill the vacancies on our infrastructure projects. Rather than spending money on unemployment benefit, let’s spend it on getting people training. We could remove the limits of numbers, and could fund the educational part of Apprenticeships in order to both upskill workers and reduce the costs to employers of taking on more people. That could cover some of the salary cost of new employees up to 20% for that day release in college, and encourage businesses to either invest in new staff or spend that money on new tech, for example. We have to use this opportunity to deal with the complexities and problems with the Apprenticeship Levy, so that businesses feel they can get cracking on bringing people in.

We can incentivise colleges to be proactive. By bringing in more students on to these courses yes of course, they’ll get more funding through the door too. There’s more though. Our colleges are home to people with expertise in business management and other entrepreneurial skills. Let’s incentivise them to help new businesses to grow. Many will have the space and the expert tutors available to help local entrepreneurs get on their feet. They could offer cheap office space and free advice to these people, who are the job creators of the future. Government has the carrots to offer our colleges. So many have overhanging debt and financial restraints that we could reduce or write off to incentivise colleges to do more. These are just some ideas. Things that I’ve floated with Government and with colleagues in the Blue Collar caucus. I’m a ‘small c’ conservative who generally thinks we should butt out of people’s lives, but I’ve always maintained that education is the one area where we need to intervene. It’s the sector that most impacts on people’s life chances. In order to offer equal opportunity to all, you have to have targeted support in our education system to give people a leg up where they need it. If there was ever a time to offer that helping hand, that ladder to get back in to employment, it is now.

Ben Bradley is the MP for Mansfield and Chairman of Blue Collar Conservatism

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