Below is the full text of Angela Rayner’s speech on adult education in Blackpool.
Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you to Gordon as well, because it’s an honour to be here in his constituency. Gordon has been my colleague in the education team since Jeremy appointed me as Shadow Secretary of State for Education in July 2016. Gordon is a Labour loyalist to his bones and I am proud to work with him.
I want to thank too our Lifelong Learning Commissioners and the Chair of the Commission, Dave Ward. An outstanding trade unionist who can’t be here today because he is in court fighting for his members, as he does every day. And Estelle Morris, a great education secretary of our past who I believe has helped shape a great Labour achievement of the future.
Because today we present a comprehensive plan to change our country for the better. What’s led us all here is something that Jeremy outlined in 2015: the National Education Service. Four years ago, Jeremy said “A national education service will be a lifelong service for a lifetime of opportunity.” Jeremy was one of the first in our movement to call for a cradle-to-grave education system. So it’s fitting that we’re all here to launch the report of the Lifelong Learning Commission.
But before I discuss our new policy, I want to say what it means in human terms. And the fact is this: I wouldn’t be here today without adult education. When I sat my GCSEs, some of my friends were thinking about what college they were going to go on to. Some were talking about A-Levels, others about employment. I wasn’t thinking about anything like that. I was thinking about how I was going to provide for my baby.
Having my son meant more to me than any qualification in the world, but you wouldn’t have been a cynic to think my life, and that of my baby, had been written off. I spoke last weekend about how Sure Start helped me to become a better mum to my boy, but we weren’t going to get far if I didn’t have a decent job.
That’s where college came in. That’s where I had my second chance. I enrolled on a British Sign Language course, and then on a course for counselling, which led me to volunteer with the Samaritans. Later, I got a job as a home help. I returned to college, gaining an NVQ 2 in care. I was a different person after this. I’d felt embarrassed about myself growing up but now I felt confident and inspired. Education was helping me, and, by helping me it was helping my son.
It’s one reason why, when I was encouraged to become a trade-union rep for UNISON, I fully went for it. I went onto become the regional convener for my union in the North West – representing over 200,000 workers across the region, including here in Blackpool. Adult education changed my life. It gave me and so many others a vital second chance but too many people today are now missing out.
Our country faces a huge and growing skills shortage, and the Tories, the so-called party of business, are making it worse. They are making it worse by locking thousands of people out of the opportunity to retrain and upskill.
In the years ahead, businesses will need to hire 1.5 million more highly qualified staff. Under the Tories, they won’t be able to do so because the very people who could fill those roles are locked out of the opportunities they need. If they want to get the skills that they need, they need to take out a loan to cover their tuition. The Tories’ decision to impose loans is causing the number of learners to plummet each and every year. And if you do return to education as an adult you will often be unable to access any maintenance support, making it even harder for those who would most benefit from a return to education to access it.
For many, adult education is too expensive, too time-consuming or too difficult to get into. So we will throw open the door for adults to study, whether they want to change career, are made redundant or didn’t get the qualifications they needed when they were younger.
People have been held back for too long. We will extend free education to ensure we have the skills we need to allow our economy to rise to the opportunities of the future. We’ll make sure no one is shut out of education by giving people the support, time and funding they need to train so that we have the skills we need to meet the changing nature of work, rise to the challenges of automation, lead our economy through the Green Industrial Revolution. So as part of Labour’s National Education Service, we will deliver a new, fully funded right to lifelong learning.
Whether you left school with no GCSEs or ten, your ability to pay or your willingness to take on debt will not determine whether you get the education you need.
In the last eight years, the number of adults achieving a qualification in English and Maths has fallen by 40%. This isn’t their fault. We will ensure every adult is supported to re-enter education, and we will give them the chance to gain the basic qualifications they need, whether that’s at Level 1, GCSE or through functional skills, so that nobody is locked out of work or other opportunities because they did not succeed in education the first time. And if they don’t already have them, we will provide the funding for everyone to access A-Levels, T-Levels, or NVQs, whatever Level 3 qualification is right for them. These are vital skills, necessary for working people across the country. But we cannot let this be the limit of our ambition. Our goal is a high-skill, high wage economy fit for the challenges of the future.
Under the Tories people are trapped in a low-skill, low wage economy, unable to make ends meet. Addressing this challenge requires a revolution in our education system. Not more warm words about parity of esteem, or platitudes about matching the performance of Germany. We cannot simply pretend that we can copy a country with a society, economy, and education system vastly different to our own. What we require is far bolder than an attempt to imitate our European partners. That is why the next Labour government will deliver the most radical expansion of adult education in our country’s history.
As part of the next Labour government’s National Education Service we will throw open the door to retraining, up-skilling, and lifelong learning.
Every single adult will be able to access six years of credits at Level 4 to 6. Qualifications above A-Level, up to and including the equivalent of an undergraduate degree, will be available to all those who need it, whenever they need it. The whole range of qualifications that will be necessary to equip working people for the decades ahead. High level, specialized qualifications in fields such as engineering, digital, and construction to name a few.
From someone who has been stuck in low-paid work or unable to progress, to those who face the risk of being displaced by automation, this new entitlement will empower them to take control of their own lives.
By being able to return to education whenever they need to, they will be given real power over their own lives, their own careers, and their own opportunities. That will transform this country. It will put power and opportunities back in the hands of the many.
Not only will we make learning itself free and accessible, we will make sure that all barriers, not just tuition, are removed from the path of learners. Too many people will not be able to go back in to education because they cannot meet the cost of living.
If they had gone to university they could get maintenance support, but this is not an option for too many people taking other routes. This cannot be justified. It locks people out of education, it creates unfairness, and it is a sign of an education system that privileges one form of learning over all others. This will not be the case in Labour’s National Education Service.
Learners who use their entitlement to study at higher levels will also receive maintenance support, on the same basis as their equivalents in higher education. In Labour’s National Education Service, nobody will be unable to access an opportunity because of their own financial situation.
But poverty is not just about being penniless, it is about being powerless. Too often, workers do not have that power, that time, or that security. They have a right to request time off to study, but it can only be training for their current job, and it is easy for their employer to simply say no. This does nothing for the worker trapped on low pay or zero hours, looking to move from a job that isn’t supporting them to a career that can. They are trapped, forced to choose between taking a chance on their education and losing what little economic security they have. That is why Labour will put this power back in the hands of working people.
Working with businesses and trade unions, we will give workers a new right to paid time off for education and training, enshrined in law so that they can access the opportunities that are right for them.
As I have seen for myself, sometimes the best education for workers comes from the very movement founded to represent us. Our trade unions. All the evidence is that the Union Learning Fund has provided some of the most effective workplace education and training there is. So we will restore it in full, and in real terms, not just ending but reversing the Tories’ cuts.
These measures will transform lifelong learning in this country, making it a right that is genuinely available to all, whatever their background or circumstances. And, as well as empowering working people, it is an essential step for our economy to rise to the challenges ahead.
Businesses report needing more and more people to take on skilled roles, but are less and less likely to feel confident that they can recruit the staff they need. This has to change. Over a million jobs have been identified as being at risk of automation and responding to the climate crisis requires a fundamental change to our economy. It will be impossible to respond to these challenges without the radical expansion of lifelong learning that we are proposing.
Lifelong learning is about more than just productivity, it is about the lives of individuals and our shared life as a community. Too often we talk about education simply as a means for people to get a job and there is no doubt that this is important. But there is no true value in a strong economy if we are not giving people a life worth living.
Lifelong learning has a role to play in the transformation not just of our economy, but our society as well. We know that education does not just improve people’s productivity, it improves the quality of their lives.
That is why lifelong learning is about so much more than qualification levels and skills shortages. Education, formal or informal, rooted in communities can transform the lives of people across the country.
These policies are some of the most radical that a Labour government will propose. Education as a right for all, throughout your life. A new, universal basic service, the right of every citizen to learn in the way that suits them, to meet their own needs as well as the needs of our economy and society.
The Conservatives say that we cannot afford these measures. They are wrong. We cannot afford not to do it. We cannot afford not to invest in the most valuable asset we have – the people of this country.
I know from my own life that knowledge is power and I wouldn’t be here without it. The last nine years has shown us what happens when you strip away that power: austerity, food banks, zero-hours contracts, poverty.
As a great trade unionist and educator once said, ‘a rat race is for rats’. We’re human beings and we deserve so much more; we deserve the full fruits of our labour. Knowledge itself is the fruit of centuries of human labour. The discoveries of maths and science; the great works of literature and art – the arc of human and natural history itself. All of this is our common inheritance. Because knowledge belongs to us all, not just a few.
Today we are here to fulfil our historic purpose as a movement, not just to be a voice for the voiceless but to give them a voice of their own. And that is what we will do, together.