What is the most effective way for the Learning and Skills Council to meet its wide-ranging responsibilities to promote equality of opportunity? The LSC is clearly determined to make a difference. Its three year strategy says it must make learning more inclusive, widen participation, ‘identify and help stamp out unlawful discrimination and promote equality of opportunity for all learners’. But, given Britain’s widespread labour market inequalities - highlighted in February by the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit report - what should the LSC actually do?
A first decisive intervention lies with Modern Apprenticeships (MAs). Primarily designed for young people leaving school at 16, Apprenticeships have a historically poor record for recruiting young people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. In some industries, they also replicated the very worst gender stereotypes - with young men steered towards engineering, construction and business administration and young women ending up in hairdressing, healthcare and catering.
Thousands of firms, especially those facing recruitment bottlenecks and skill shortages, see the overwhelming case for training young people through an Apprenticeship. It is good for their business. What's more, representatives of business get a strong say in the shape and content of Apprenticeship programmes for their industry.
Aligning the design of Apprenticeships so closely to the real practices of employers is clearly an enormous strength. But it is also a weakness. MAs can also replicate the worst aspects of recruitment discrimination and subsequent disadvantage. Although explicit discrimination has been outlawed for a quarter of a century, it lives on amidst a myriad of attitudes and assumptions about who ‘fits’ what kind of job. The worst employers do this quite openly - though not so blatantly that a prosecution might follow. Even the best of employers, often unwittingly, filter their candidates in ways that exclude young Black and Asian candidates from entry to jobs or promotion.
Fundamental change to the labour market can only start at the bottom - with young people as they make the transition from education to work. This is where the LSC can make the most profound impact on the labour market.
Sadly, there has been little improvement over the last five years. This is despite a prolonged spell of buoyant jobs growth and seemingly determined equal opportunities efforts on the part of TECs and providers. The latest data shows that in 1996-97, 68% of white leavers left their training and got a job, compared with 45% of minority ethnic leavers. Last year, the comparable figures were 71% and 45%.
MAs just do not seem to recruit young people who are Black or Asian. Only 5% of trainees on Advanced MAs are from ethnic minorities. Bear in mind what the ‘parity’ benchmark figure for Black or Asians should be nearly 12% of the 16 to 19 cohort.
Some sectors are truly dreadful. In construction, a sector riddled by skill shortages, only 1% of Apprenticeships were drawn from minority ethnic groups whilst electrical trades and engineering scarcely mustered 2% of their apprenticeships.
Most occupation and industry sectors show almost no change over the last five years. Several sectors have actually worsened - like construction and hospitality where participation rates for Black and Asian young people have halved in the last five years.
So why, despite considerable effort by Government, are Apprenticeships still failing to engage young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds? And what should be done?
The Government has accepted most of the Cassels Committee recommendations that will raise the status of Apprenticeships with trainees and employers. It has agreed a target to increase the proportion of young people enrolled on Apprenticeships to 28% of the youth population and endorsed measures to improve the quality of training and to bring it even closer to the emerging skill requirements of employers.
These ‘new generation’ Apprenticeships should have another target - parity of participation and outcomes. Experience with New Deal has shown how minds can be concentrated when Government gets this serious about eliminating discrimination. Equality goals should be built into the LSC’s new provider review processes whilst the new Sector Skills Councils (SSC) should start getting tougher with their industries. No new SSC should be licenced by Government unless it has the clearest of plans to achieve outcome parity for MAs by encouraging unbiased recruitment and personnel practices that reflect the diversity of local populations. The LSC also needs a range of practical measures that will support and encourage Black and Asian young people throughout their Apprenticeships - from start to completion.
If the LSC gets it right with Modern Apprenticeships, it can proudly say five years from now that it has made a difference.