More than 100,000 students and apprentices look set to get free training for two years from July thanks to a $1.6 billion retraining package.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said making targeted vocational training courses free – for all ages, not just school leavers – over the next two years will help people who have lost their jobs retrain and also allow new employees in some essential services to train on the job.

"It will include courses linked to industry skills needs, in building and construction, agriculture, and manufacturing, and also vocational courses like community health, counselling and care work. The fund will be available from 1 July 2020," he said.

Details are still scarce and there is no mention of the plan in the lists of Budget initiatives or Estimates of Expenditure, because the package appears to have been signed off by Cabinet after the main Budget documents were prepared.

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A spokesman for Hipkins said he could not say how many students and trainees would get the free training because officials still need to work out which courses will qualify, in consultation with polytechnics and other training providers.

"There's still some work to do and some was signed off quite late in the piece," he said.

Chris Hipkins has announced a $1.6 billion package for vocational education and training. Photo / File
Chris Hipkins has announced a $1.6 billion package for vocational education and training. Photo / File

At last count in 2018 there were 232,330 students and industry trainees in "vocational education and training", which includes polytechnics and industry training.

Just over 108,000 of these were in the sectors mentioned in Hipkins' press release: architecture and building, agriculture and related trades, engineering (including manufacturing) and health.

Another 124,000 were studying natural and physical sciences, information technology, education, management and commerce, social and cultural studies, creative arts, food and hospitality, and mixed field programmes.

It appears that most of those other trainees will not be on the free list, although the spokesman said: "It could be, for example, that someone says some low-level IT needs to go in. It will be worked out based on what economically does New Zealand need for the next few years."

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The other main education initiative in the Budget, expanding free school lunches to 200,000 schoolchildren, was also announced by press release after the Budget documents were finalised. The Estimates actually show a slight cut in planned spending on school lunches from $6.1m to $5.3m as the existing trial serving 8000 children was planned to wind down.

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The press release said the programme has now been given a massive $217m over two years, reaching 200,000 children by terms 2 or 3 next year.

The figure of 200,000 is 37.7 per cent, or three-eighths, of the 529,287 students in Years 1 to 8 last year. Officials said the free lunches will go to schools with the greatest social need based on a new "equity index".

Perry Rush welcomed school lunches for 200,000 children, but said other funding for schools was
Perry Rush welcomed school lunches for 200,000 children, but said other funding for schools was "on hold". Photo / File

Principals' Federation president Perry Rush welcomed the school lunch programme, but said other areas of education had been left "on hold", with only a 1.6 per cent inflation adjustment in school operational funding despite promises of big changes from the reform of the "Tomorrow's Schools" regime.

There was no second tranche of learning support co-ordinators after they were funded for two-fifths of schools from January, and a scheme paying $150 per student to the poorest 70 per cent of schools, if they stop asking for donations from parents, has not been extended to the other 30 per cent of schools.

Rush said principals were still working with the Ministry of Education on funding school counsellors and other mental health support for primary and intermediate schools. He hoped that might still come through in Covid-19 funding that has yet to be allocated.

Universities NZ chairman Professor Derek McCormack said the Budget provided an extra $600m for the universities to enrol an extra 10,000 domestic students in the next two years, up from 115,000 at present. Numbers are expected to fall again after that as the economy recovers.

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