Will education feature as a significant campaign issue in the 2015 general election? Will the major parties be offering us distinct visions of the future of education?
It’s clear that any incoming government will inherit a divided and incoherent non-system. So, will the parties use the campaign to clarify how they see education meeting people’s needs and aspirations or will they simply be trading scandals and arguing about who would cope best with the mess?
From Labour, we now have a draft education manifesto: Education and children. The document is a first effort and can be amended over the next few months. It does not yet reflect the recommendations of the Blunkett review of the role of local authorities in education and the Husbands skills taskforce with its proposal for a National Baccalaureate for 14-19 year olds.
Education and children contains some good proposals but in my view it will need substantial revision if it is to offer voters an inspiring alternative.
The critique of our fragmented and unaccountable school system is cogent and there are welcome commitments on planning for school places, qualified teachers, careers advice, healthy schools, food standards, childcare and early years education.
However, the very first sentence of the document’s introduction firmly signals a purely economic view of education:
“For Britain to succeed in the 21st Century, we must earn our way in the world and win the race to the top, with a high skill, high wage economy. We can only build such an economy with all of Britain’s young people playing their part in making it happen.”
Where is the commitment to the purpose and value of education to individuals and society? Where is the statement about what a national education system should aim to teach all children and young people? There’s nothing wrong with making a connection between learning and work but as an opening sentence for an education manifesto aiming to inspire people with a vision of a better society, this is distinctly lacklustre. It offers a narrow view of education serving the national economy in a competitive international market and neglects the transformative, human, social, cultural and global aspects of education. A more expansive vision can offer us a lot more than the prospect of endless competition, growth and consumption – a catastrophic “race to the bottom” in which everyone is a loser.
In the Transforming vocational education and skills section we are told that:
“The current Government has neglected vocational education, viewing it as the second class option for young people, who are not being offered a clear, gold standard vocational route through school and college. This is resulting in wasted talent, limitation on life chances and contributing to the current crisis in youth unemployment.”
Whatever one thinks of the government’s reform of further education programmes including vocational courses, it cannot be accused of neglecting this area. Vocational courses are being made more “rigorous” with reforms of content and assessment. The substantial full time vocational courses which have survived the current cull are of high quality and help many thousands of students progress to university or employment every year. The section as written seems to blame youth unemployment on vocational qualifications. Unemployment is mainly about a lack of jobs not a lack of skills. The empty phrase “gold standard” is repeated nine times as if to ward off those substandard qualifications. The document is right to point out that there is a “second-class” problem but if Labour’s new National Baccalaureate is designed as a single overarching framework which includes general and vocational elements it should offer the prospect of finally achieving the much sought-after parity of esteem.
This same section also proposes to:
“transform those colleges with top quality teaching, strong employer links, and high standards in English and Maths into new specialist Institutes of Technical Education….licensed to deliver Labour’s Tech Bacc, driving up standards of vocational education in England.”
What on earth is the point of these new Institutes of Technical Education? Where would this leave people who happen to live in areas where no college has qualified to become an Institute? If colleges are doing the right thing, they don’t need a new status. If they’re not, they need to be supported / challenged to improve. Do we really need a new institutional hierarchy in an already divided education system? This is a very odd proposal for a party which makes a virtue of not messing around with the status of schools.
The section entitled Ensuring strong local support and oversight of schools tells us that:
“A One Nation education system will deliver a radical devolution of power from Whitehall. Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their area. We will also put an end to the fragmented, divisive school system created by this Government….extend to all schools the freedom academies can use to innovate and raise standards…with these freedoms must come local oversight….real local accountability for all schools.”
The promise of restoring local accountability and some level of system planning is an essential step in the right direction and the Blunkett review proposals should fill in the gaps here. But the missing words in this section are “democratic” and “elected” – surely vital components of any genuine system of local accountability – in contrast to the government’s new network of unelected regional commissioners.
On apprenticeships, the draft promises to:
“drive up the quantity and quality of apprenticeships…expect employers to create significantly more apprenticeships.”
This is welcome, although it is worth remembering that apprenticeships are jobs, and employers need to have the jobs to offer apprenticeships – this is an economic and training issue not an educational one.
The Improving access to Higher Education section is thin on concrete proposals while claiming that:
“The government is reducing opportunities for state school pupils to get into the best universities.”
I don’t believe this can be substantiated; poorer students have not been put off applying to university – quite the opposite. And while privately educated students are still over-represented in many Russell group universities this is not a result of government policy. The “best universities” terminology is used here without being defined; does this mean the “most selective universities” or has Labour bought into the Russell group’s self definition? The issue which should be highlighted is how the whole loans system is becoming unsustainable.
Overall, then, there’s quite a bit of sharpening and polishing needed to make this a platform worthy of a party of government. I think the starting point should be to ask:
- What are Labour’s core educational values?
- What is the party’s vision of the purpose of education in a progressive programme for change?
- How can this be communicated in a popular, vote-winning way?
And there are plenty of experienced people willing to help with this task.
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