Coalition plans to make it more difficult for 18- to 21-year-olds to go straight on to benefits after school, and instead require them to work or study, are to be announced by the business secretary, Vince Cable.
He will hint at the new "earn or learn" plans, being discussed as a possible centrepiece of a new coalition agreement, in a speech to the Association of Colleges.
Government figures show 18.5% of boys aged 18 and 15.3% of girls are Neets – not in education, employment or training. The total is 115,000. The degree to which a benefit sanction would be included, and on what terms, is still up for discussion within the coalition, with Conservatives favouring a sanction.
Cable will say in his speech: "The issue is this: the government has a clear vision for 16- to 18-year-olds, where we are raising the participation age and increasing support for English and maths. But for young people over 18, the offer is much less clear. There's generous educational support for some, while, for others, financial support through the benefits system can actually prevent them from learning.
"Ideally, we should be keeping this age group as far away from the benefits system as possible, unless there's a really compelling need. For this group, we need a much simpler system, which supports and incentivises people to get the skills they need to secure sustainable employment, whether through higher education, further education or an apprenticeship, or through more bespoke interventions to help them acquire the employability skills that too many companies tell me are lacking."
The new approach for 18- to 21-year-olds is being described as "earn or learn", a term borrowed from Australia.
Cable will say that policy work is at an early stage but it is designed to address a gap in the government's social mobility agenda. It has been reported that the coalition is divided on the extent to which trainees would be required to take up one of the options or lose some or all benefit.
Cable will also say it is his intention that 18-year-olds leaving school by the end of this parliament should consider an apprenticeship to be as rewarding and socially valuable as going to university.
He will say: "My ambition is that, by 2015, an 18-year-old leaving school and weighing up the choice of degree versus apprenticeship would do so without factoring in social stigma – seeing them as different but of equal value in terms of experience, job prospects, value for money and earnings potential."
He will also say "skills provision in this country is of such quality that any lingering snobbery is removed from the equation – through professionalising teaching and improving the quality of learning".
The strong defence of further education, and its ability to forge social mobility, is also designed to signal that he is determined to defend further education from any cuts in the autumn statement.
He has already signalled in a speech he gave to the CBI that he does not want to accept cuts to the science or higher education budgets. He will assert that FE is a sector that is expanding, not contracting.
He will also promise to "continue increasing the number of higher level apprenticeships, to degree level and beyond, especially in priority sectors which have a major role to play in supporting economic growth".
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