Shaping an alternative education policy.

The Labour Party National Policy Forum Consultation 2017.

Labour is currently consulting on its Early Years, Education and Skills policies and the consultation document merits the attention of anyone who is interested in developing alternatives to the current direction of travel in English education policy.

The consultation paper starts with a vision and then poses key questions in each of the main policy areas; early years, schools, further education and adult skills and children’s social care and safeguarding. This response offers a few initial thoughts on the broader vision while being mainly concerned with post-16 education policy.

The vision: egalitarian, social and economic

The very first sentence defines education for self-realisation in broadly egalitarian terms:

“…to make sure that everyone, whatever their background, is given the opportunity and skills to reach their full potential and live a good life.”

This section goes on to describe the objective of “a world class education system…excellent schools and well-funded services…” and to highlight the gaps in attainment between lower-income children and their wealthier peers which “are evident before they even start school”.

Both economic and social imperatives are addressed; the general aspirations of ‘reaching one’s full potential’ and living ‘a good life’ are counterbalanced with statements about how essential education is to future economic health and t achieving a skilled workforce.

Going beyond the broad aim of giving everyone the opportunity to “live the life they want to” this section could benefit from more specific examples of how education can help us to achieve our economic, social and personal objectives. It could offer some aspirations around education’s potential to develop active citizens, shape communities, promote social solidarity and help us cope with changes and challenges.

The need for a system

There is also the commitment to create a National Education Service (NES) “open to all throughout their lives”. This is a good overarching policy framework which could be used to signpost solutions to many of the problems of our fragmented and divided education ‘non-system’. The idea of mobilising all publicly funded education providers to serve the whole community could be a real vote-winner if it can be attractively fleshed-out. Using the NHS paradigm for education implies a big shift in the way we think about our schools and colleges. People will need to understand what a National Education Service might look like in their area and how it might benefit them. This requires concrete examples of how a fairer and more effective system could be assembled from the somewhat dysfunctional set of elements we currently have.

In order to make the case for an NES, there also needs to be a clear critique of the marketization of education. Providers in all phases in England are operating in a market where they compete for students and under a high-stakes accountability regime where any performance below average is seen as failure. The school section suggests the need for “a permanent infrastructure of support services to help them function effectively” and “evidence-based…sustainable school improvement” but more work needs to be done on how to build such a high-performing and supportive system starting from where we are now. The question of balancing local or regional democratic accountability with a national service standard will also need to be addressed.

Modernising and improving access to further education and adult skills

This section rightly highlights the under-funding of 16-19, further and adult education following several years of disproportionate cuts. A commitment to re-balancing per capita investment between pre-16 and post-16 students would certainly be welcome. As with the schools section, more is needed on how we might move from a market based on competition to a system based on networking and collaborating.

The critique of current apprenticeship policy is welcome, but this section seems to equate further education with skills training and therefore assumes purely economic objectives for the sector. The overall narrative has nothing to say about what the educational aims of a 16-19 phase should be and there are no questions about what young adults could expect from a National Education Service. Surely, the promise of the good life and the wider social aspirations sketched out in the first section should apply as much to sixth formers, FE students and adult learners as to their younger selves. Older teenagers may be closer to the labour market but they are also closer to full, active citizenship and adult social responsibilities.

To address the questions:

Does our further education system provide for the skills we need in a future economy?

We need to establish educational objectives for all 16-19 year olds which include an entitlement to a broad curriculum including a range of subject domains, literacy, numeracy, citizenship and work-related learning including work placements or internships. The ‘future economy’, just like the present one, requires people to have a good grounding in foundational knowledge as well as experience of using wider skills including communication, collaborative, creative and research skills as well as sector-specific skills.

How can we improve access for adults that want to re-skill and develop the quality of workplace learning? What role can universities play in this? How can we raise the quality of apprenticeships? What can we do to address the skills gap and promote better strategic planning for apprenticeship and training? What role do University Technical Colleges have to play?

Colleges and universities are already working with employers to develop advanced and higher level apprenticeships for over-18’s which can work, further qualifications and progression opportunities. This is where apprenticeship investment should be directed. Adults could be offered an entitlement to further education or training throughout life, prioritising for public funding those who have received the least or achieved the least.

For under-18’s, the priority should be making a broad and stimulating educational offer available to all – including an entitlement to good work-related learning. This should be available wherever they are studying and whatever their prior achievement or skills levels. Low-level apprenticeships for 16 year olds with low prior achievement are not on their own a good route to progression or higher skill employment.

Compelling ‘signature’ policies needed

This consultation is the first step towards developing policies which can be put to the electorate with a view to winning power. As well as deciding how much additional investment can be found for education from total public spending, any party also needs some concrete ideas which symbolise their approach well and can win votes.

What might such ‘signature’ policies look like, based on an ambitious, egalitarian and life-long vision of a National Education Service? I would suggest two:

  • Create a National Baccalaureate for all young people to aim for – generally by 19. This would be a single coherent national framework which would accredit a range of subject and work-related learning and skills. Achieving a full diploma would be recognised as a challenging and valued milestone for all young adults and a passport to further progression.
  • Extend the National Citizens Service to include all volunteering and civic activity with the opportunity to ‘earn’ a fee-discount for university or adult education based on the number of hours of activity. This would be a mutual ‘something for something’ way to move towards lower fees while promoting community development and cohesion at the same time.

The consultation period closes on 31st May 2017 and submissions can be made until then via:

See also:

Going Beyond (October 2016)

Education: what’s it all for? (January 2016)

Developing Labour’s vision for education (September 2015)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

For a National Education Service (July 2015)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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