Dan Jarvis: How Labour should develop its National Education Service

Dan Jarvis

As the 21st century takes shape around us, it will be the education system that holds the key to overcoming three of the largest challenges that the UK is facing: increasing automation; falling productivity; and the cognitive challenges of the information age.

  • The automation that will come with the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is forecast to reduce the demand for routine cognitive and manual skills (such as book keeping and manufacturing), increase the demand for high-end cognitive and social skills, and maintain the demand for unskilled work. Such developments are already hollowing out the labour market and risk further harming rural and coastal areas already damaged by previous periods of industrial change. Preparing both our future and current workforce for such change, and enabling them to continuously learn and adapt is essential if we are to prevent the further entrenchment of regional inequalities and the ever increasing tendency to reward capital rather than labour.
  • An ageing population and a projected fall in ‘GDP per hour worked’ is forecast to cause economic growth to fall by nearly 50% over the next 30 years. This fall in productivity is a result of: a lack of R&D investment; low interest rates sustaining zombie companies; and workforce skill shortages. One of the proven means by which we can increase our national productivity is to continually and consistently improve the skill set and productivity of our workforce, and give them the learning infrastructure to adapt to technological changes when they emerge.
  • The information revolution has brought with it huge benefits, but as a society we need to be better equipped to see through the data smog that surrounds us. A study from the University of California found that every day people are confronted with around 105,000 words, or the equivalent of about 34GB of information; this is enough to overload a laptop within a week. Studies have also shown that social media users do not tend to distinguish between those articles containing misinformation and those containing reliable information, and that 60% of the content in British newspapers and broadcasting is sponsored by companies. Together these facts mean that an ability to critically assess the information we are presented with is vital. Without such an ability, we risk undermining both our effective decision-making, and the way in which our democracy functions.

Meeting these three challenges requires an education and skills system that keeps pace with the changing world around us, adapts to the complexity it will bring, and ‘future-proofs’ the way we learn. If we don’t develop that system, and meet those challenges head on, we risk letting down multiple generations of people who, with the right access to high-quality education and training, have the potential to thrive in the 21st century. But before we can expect the education system to help us overcome these challenges, we must address its current failings.

The problems the current education system is facing include: the magnitude of graduate debts; poverty causing kids to fail; the falling number of adult learners; a low uptake in apprenticeships; five million adults lacking basic numeracy and literacy skills; rural and coastal areas achieving poorer academic results than cities; inconsistent access to both good schools and non-classroom based activities; people with special educational needs having their services disproportionately cut; and the persistence of the three-tier system of private, grammar and comprehensive schools that nearly always benefit children with wealthy parents. The list is diverse and seemingly endless, though what all these issues have in common is that they can all be fixed, but only if there is a political will to do so.

Yet, instead of solving such problems, poor political decision-making has either caused these issues or exacerbated them. Years of politically motivated reform has created uncertainty and distrust. Successive Secretaries of State have made sweeping changes to the education system on the basis of political ideology, rather than in the interests of children and adults in education and training. The next Labour government must tackle these problems; invest in the UK’s education system and give everyone the confidence that they will be provided with the life skills they need.

Labour’s current response to these challenges

The Labour Party has recognised the gravity of these challenges and, in our 2017 manifesto, committed to “making lifelong learning a reality by giving everyone the opportunity to access education throughout their lives… [by providing] a unified National Education Service… to move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use”. Building on it a manifesto commitment, last November the Labour Party proposed a ten-point charter focussed on: participation; inclusivity; public good; quality; collaboration; universality; parity of esteem; integration; accountability; respect; professionalism; community; and a service that was free at the point of use throughout an individual’s life.

The vision behind this offer was captured in a recent Fabian Society pamphlet where the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner, wrote that the mission of Labour’s National Education Service was “not just to underpin our economic prosperity, but to transform the lives of individuals and society, and bring meaningful opportunities to all those areas that, for too long, have been left behind”. It is time to turn this vision and these principles into a reality.

Further reforms that should be considered 

We must now build upon this blueprint and develop a clear idea of an education service fit for the 21st century. Though there are many views and areas of provision to be considered, I believe there are certain reforms that should be prioritised. 

1. Depoliticising the curriculum

Political motivation should not be allowed to dictate something as important as our curriculum. The next Labour government must seek to end the ideological governance of the curriculum by putting it in the hands of experts rather than politicians. We should introduce a new, genuinely independent, body; the National Institute of Educational and Training Excellence (NIETE) to review and adapt the national curriculum at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The board of NIETE would be filled by head teachers, teachers, governors, employers, industry representatives, educationalists, trade union representatives and labour market experts, and it would be the educational and training equivalent to the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the body which provides guidance to the NHS.

The NIETE would be more powerful than any previous curriculum advisory board, with full curriculum setting powers delegated to it by the Secretary of State. NIETE’s structures, including the terms of board members and planning processes, would be established with a clear long-term view in mind. The body would look to plan ahead and seek to future-proof our National Education and Training System. It would adapt the curriculum to the challenges of the future and would also be responsible for ensuring the supply of teachers required to teach the subjects and skills we need.

To compliment the national body, NIETE would have regional sub-boards to tackle regional variations in both the supply and demands of skills. This would ensure that all decisions are mindful of our communities and the different demands each of them faces.

2. Devolution

These regional boards would also directly feed in to democratically accountable Regional Education Authorities (REAs). I have written and spoken elsewhere about the need for devolution and how it should be linked to reform of the upper house. But, in short, I believe that if we are to make Britain healthy again and heal its divisions, we need a new economic and political settlement that involves genuine devolution of political and economic power. This is the only way to spread prosperity and opportunity to the towns and counties of all our regions, and should include responsibility for the delivery of education and training. 

In such a model, Westminster would retain responsibility for determining the budget and what services are provided; OFSTED would remain responsible for their inspection and regulation; NIETE would be responsible for the curriculum; and the REAs would be responsible for the execution and administration of those services to the people in the community of which they are members. This type of regional delivery model would not only localise and align authority, responsibility and accountability for a key public service, it would enable and encourage greater linkages between all types of learning institutions. Universities, night schools, children centres and secondary schools would all become part of mutually supporting learning eco-systems responsible for through life provision.

3. Adult Education Funds

Though the marketisation of our education service has been the cause of many of the problems it now faces, the monetising of an individual’s entitlement, and therefore service provision, remains necessary. Without it, you cannot empower individuals to make flexible and informed choices that are mindful of the cost of provision; you cannot ensure the rapid innovation of provision; and you cannot rebalance the disproportionate benefit that the middle class get from a universal tertiary education entitlement.

The establishment of Adult Education Funds could do all of this. In such a system an annual funding entitlement would be credited to each account at the beginning of each financial year – starting as an individual enters their final term of secondary education. For the first couple of years the entitlement would be a large one, sufficient to cover the cost of university degree or five-year apprenticeship. Beyond that the entitlement would be smaller, sufficient to cover or contribute to 3-5 days’ worth of education/training, an evening course, a distance learning course or similar. If not used the entitlement could be saved to contribute to a more expensive, longer full-time course.

If, as is likely, a large proportion of the population doesn’t use their entitlement it, or a proportion of it could, at State Pension Age, be transferred to their ‘Combined Defined Contribution Pension’ (a policy proposal I have written about elsewhere). Such a move would be equitable, progressive, and go much of the way to redressing the fact that a universal education entitlement often disproportionately benefits those who are already better off.

4. Life-long learning

In a fast-changing world, the education and training system must prioritise re-learning alongside learning. This is a priority that has not been met by this government, with a 39% drop in mature students since 2011. The next Labour government must ensure that people working in declining industries and occupations are able to access new employment in growing areas of the job market, and establish a new right to continue training while in work. Such a right would be the key tenet of the new National and Regional Adult Education Strategies, written and delivered by the REAs.

One of the cornerstones of these strategies would be everybody’s eligibility to spend up to four days a year undertaking NIETE-approved training courses; helping people to maintain a relevant skill set as both society and the workplace change. These four days of training would be in addition to statutory annual leave, and would be enshrined in the rights of all workers.

People would be able to choose the courses that best suit their needs, with advisers on hand to help everybody make the most from their annual allocation. Some will want to take productivity-enhancing courses to improve their ability in their current role, others may wish to incrementally pick up new skill sets that could help them move into new industries or occupations. Everyone would be eligible for this scheme, which would ensure learning does not finish at school, university or further education, but is established as an ongoing feature of everyone’s life.

For those who do not wish to take time off work, are self-employed or want to educate and train themselves beyond their four days a year, Labour would provide other options. It would invest in both the development of new vocationally focused online courses, (by both the Open University and other providers) and also in the reinvigoration of the UK’s night schools. Despite the great contribution these institutions have made to the UK’s tradition of autodidacts, under the current government they are in terminal decline. The next Labour government must support them both in principle and in practice.

In the case of those beyond the state pension age, or those who do not work, education and training may play a lesser role in people’s lives, but the state provision of NIETE-approved training courses should not end. Many people may opt to work, at least in a part time capacity, beyond state pension age, whilst many more will choose to fill important voluntary roles across wider civic society. We should ensure that older people are given access to the skills necessary to make these choices and perform these important roles.

5. Priority scholarships

Through NIETE, a Labour government should adopt a more active approach to targeting skills gaps in the economy. Not only will better coordination between further education courses and the labour market provide firms with access to the people they need, it will also give assurances to adults who want to invest their time in further or higher education.

The next Labour government should commit to fully funding thousands of further and higher education ‘priority scholarships’ each year. The NIETE would be ideally placed to identify courses, ranging across all academic and technical disciplines, which would give students the skills they need to meet the demands of both wider society and the labour market. Under this system, anybody could apply for a priority scholarship at any point during their life, and if successful, the government could, in addition to their universal entitlement, contribute to their living costs.

6. Curriculum and the qualifications framework

In the 20th century, many people believed that the only educational choice that was to be made was between the academic and the technical. This kind of false choice, and the assumptions it is based upon, must end. Any future education service must be built upon a triumvirate of basic skills, top class academic attainment, and a high quality technical education for all; with a parity of esteem between the latter two built upon a strong foundation of literacy and numeracy.

We must also revise our view of what constitute core vocational skills, as illustrated below in the table extracted from the “Future of Jobs Survey” by the World Economic Forum. In accordance with these changes, one of NIETE’s first tasks should be to review the national curriculum, how we assess people’s ability and how we award qualifications. They should have the confidence to be radical and consider the kind of ideas proposed by both Howard Gardener and Mike Tomlinson.

We may have more people going to university than ever before, but the financial value of many of those degrees is declining, just as the cost of them is increasing. Coupled with this is the fact that in 2016 just 1,800 18 year old leavers started any form of higher apprenticeships. These two facts suggest there is something fundamentally wrong about how we approach full time tertiary education – we need to correct this, and tackle the cultural snobbery that values the theoretical above work and workplace skills, and provide everyone with access to the education and training they need. Just as the best secondary education will be a combination of the academic and the technical, the best tertiary education will be a combination of the theoretical and the vocational. Our aspiration should be for every provider to offer every student such a placement, and so begin to blur the lines between degrees and apprenticeships.   

Conclusion

Finally, a future Labour government cannot and should not hide from the fact that this extended educational entitlement will cost money and that we as a nation need to reconsider how much, as a share of GDP, we want general government spending – including central, regional and local governments – to be. However, in the case of education and training, such spending is a necessary investment in our future. Study after study has shown government expenditure on education is more than made back in economic growth, with research showing every pound spent on education can add up to £20 back to our economy. Other nations are recognising the urgent need to invest in their citizens’ skills, and we must ensure that neither the UK nor its workers are left behind. Investment in training and skills will both help people and increase productivity and, over time, decrease our national debt. In short, money invested in education and training is money well spent.

This is an abridged version of a chapter from the book Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour by Stephen Kinnock and Joe Jervis.

Dan Jarvis is MP for Barnsley Central and Labour’s candidate for South Yorkshire mayor in Sheffield City Region.

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