Education is a collective good – it’s time for a National Education Service

27th July, 2015 7:08 am

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When we fail to invest in people their potential is wasted and our economy underperforms. The more we empower people with the skills they need to succeed the stronger the economy we build.

Education is not about personal advancement but is a collective good that benefits our society and our economy. We all benefit from a more educated and skilled workforce. Earlier in the campaign I set out how we could scrap fees and restore grants, now I want to widen that vision and set out a plan to move towards a National Education Service.

We start a long way from where we want to be: George Osborne is taking us in entirely the wrong direction. The adult skills budget has been slashed by 40% since 2010. The cuts are staggering not only in their scale, but in their gross irresponsibility too.

The savage cuts to further education courses are also narrowing the opportunities of those now awaiting their GCSE results. A country that doesn’t invest in its people has taken the path of managed decline. The only global race we will win is to the bottom.

In a fast-changing world where new technology is making new industries and making others obsolete, we need an education system – a lifelong learning service – that offers new skills and understanding throughout our working lives.

The UK already lags behind countries like the US, Germany, Japan and France on productivity. How can we build and expand the sectors of the future, with the skilled workforce that requires, if we cut back on opportunities for lifelong learning?

Fifty years ago, the Labour government of Harold Wilson sought to address this problem for its time, and under Jennie Lee in 1965 started the work to establish the Open University – one of the most under-rated achievements of Labour in government.

Fifty years on, it is time to start putting the case for investment in learning from cradle to grave. A National Education Service would be every bit as vital and as free at the point of use as our NHS, and should be delivered by the end of the next Parliament.

Tony Blair famously said Labour’s top three priorities were ‘education, education, education’. From Sure Start, to smaller class sizes to new school buildings, those investments continue to pay dividends today in improved exam results and more young people in university. Let us build on that legacy.

The case for investing in early years education towards universal free childcare is overwhelming. A study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers a decade ago told us that in the long-term universal childcare would more than pay for itself – due to extra tax revenues from those in work and productivity gains. Politicians like to dress up in hard hats and hi-vis jackets on their pet construction projects, but lack the same enthusiasm for investment in social infrastructure.

In 2020 we should start by reversing the cuts to the adult skills budget and expand it into a lifelong learning service by adding 2% to corporation tax (still comfortably the lowest in the G7). This funding would be hypothecated to expand adult learning into a lifelong learning education resource. The extra tax revenues brought by a high skill, high productivity and high pay economy will fund further expansion.

A National Education Service will give working age people access throughout their lives to learn new skills or to re-train. It should also work with Jobcentre Plus to offer claimants opportunities to improve their skills, rather than face the carousel of workfare placements, sanctions and despair. We need a return to ambitious joined-up government.

While slashing college funding, George Osborne boasts of increasing apprenticeships. Yet too many are low quality, failing to give young people the transferable skills they need to get on.

It is clear that some employers are using apprenticeships and traineeships as a means of circumventing minimum wage legislation. This has to end. The minimum wage must be equalised across the board – with no poverty rates like the current £2.73 per hour apprenticeship rate.

Under a National Education Service, colleges should work in partnership with employers to mutually accredit apprenticeships and courses that offer high quality transferable skills. Councils and government agencies should also use public procurement contracts to guarantee good apprenticeships.

The best employers understand the business case for investing in staff – in increased employee productivity and staff retention – and that’s why it is right to ask business to pay slightly more in corporation tax to fund it, while still leaving UK corporation tax the lowest in the G7.

Government must play a strategic co-ordinating role in a modern economy. For too long the UK approach has been to stand back, ‘let the market decide’, then hope for the best. A National Education Service will be a lifelong learning service for a lifetime of opportunity.

Jeremy Corbyn is the MP for Islington North. He is also standing to be Labour’s next leader.

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