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People shouldn’t have to choose between education and financial security, says Labour

Labour has launched plans for a national education service, from cradle-to-grave. Sofia Ropek on what it would look like, and whether it’ll inspire voters.
This article is more than 4 years old

Sofia was an Associate Editor at Wonkhe.

“Adult education changed my life”, Angela Rayner told activists at a campaign event in Blackpool.

Rayner and Jeremy Corbyn were launching Labour’s expanded plans for a cradle-to-grave national education service after their Lifelong Learning Commission published its final report. The LLC report is very much a manifesto in the true sense of the word – emotive writing designed to galvanise readers and build momentum both for lifelong learning and a Labour government:

From the Attlee government that built a new Britain from the ashes of the second world war, to the Wilson administration that forged a new Britain in the white heat of the technological revolution and saw the creation of the Open University”.

Rayner describes Labour’s proposal for a national education service as a part of this radical and transformational tradition.

But, as is often the case, radical policy rethinks are complex and difficult to deliver – and many components of the plan will be hugely expensive. To be fair, there is no suggestion that everything will be delivered on day one of a Labour-led administration – but the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated.

In a nutshell

For the 2019 election, Labour promises to:

  • Scrap university tuition fees
  • Give every adult six years of free study at levels 4-6 – including undergraduate degrees, diplomas and certificates
  • Bring back maintenance grants
  • Bring back EMA for sixth-form students
  • Introduce a national careers advisory service
  • Introduce a legal right to time off for training

Time off for training

In her speech, Rayner emphasised the importance of power in relation to education, and described how austerity, food banks, poverty and zero-hour contracts have stripped it away:

Poverty is not just about being penniless, it is about being powerless”.

Rayner and the LLC report specifically describe the power imbalance between employers and workers. Employers “cannot simply act as the end-point of education”, the report notes. Although employees have the right to request time off, it’s often only for training related to their current job, and employers can say no, Rayner commented. She added: “They are trapped, forced to choose between taking a chance on their education and losing what little economic security they have”.

Labour promises to work with employers and trade unions to introduce a legal right to time off for training, and to develop a package of support for employers to train their staff, including a national “train the trainers” programme. The promise of more power will appeal to the growing number of workers on zero-hour contracts – many of whom are in universities.

“Truly integrated”

“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”, Rayner told the crowd. Lifelong learning, the LLC report makes clear, isn’t just about making education available, it’s about access to Sure Start centres for young parents, and access to libraries and community centres. Although the report acknowledges that the plea to join things up isn’t new, it notes that a “truly integrated lifelong learning system” won’t be possible if education is “boxed-off” from other parts of public life.

Barriers to lifelong learning might include a lack of public transport, a closed town library, slow internet or unaffordable childcare. Labour is promising Sure Start centres across the UK, 30 hours of free childcare for 2-4 year olds, and free school meals for all primary school children, as well as an assessment of infrastructure to ensure that towns have adequate community spaces such as libraries. In comparison with bitty policies and wodges of money, the LLC report connects poverty, childcare, internet access and closed libraries to access to lifelong learning. Of course, a “truly integrated” education system would depend on the success of joined-up policymaking.

Changing the conversation

Labour wants to connect the dots, but they’re also promising to change the conversation around learning. Rayner said that Labour will abandon “platitudes” about competing with Germany or “warm words” about parity of esteem around further and higher education – in favour of concrete action. For example, the LLC report claims that teacher numbers in further education have fallen “starkly” over the last ten years, and recommends improving the conditions of staff in the sector through linking labour standards and funding eligibility.

The report also notes low levels of funding for further education, and enforced competition between providers, which takes the focus away from the learner. The report recommends requiring publicly-funded providers to set out how they’ll collaborate with other institutions and share work.

Through the report’s focus on infrastructure, and Rayner’s remarks on poverty and access to education, Labour also shifts the conversation away from resilience and personal responsibility:

In the last eight years, the number of adults achieving a qualification in English and maths has fallen by 40 per cent. This isn’t their fault”.

Along with plans to place power back in the hands of learners, Rayner assured listeners that bad infrastructure resulting from neglectful policies, rather than a lack of aspiration, can determine a person’s level of education.

“I felt confident and inspired”

The LLC report was written to inspire voters (at least, those who read it) and generate strong public support for a national education service – akin to public support for the NHS. But Angela Rayner’s own story was equally evocative. Rayner spoke about how she enrolled on a British Sign Language course, followed by a course for counselling, and later 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”.

Launching Labour’s learning “revolution”, Rayner credited her current position to adult education. Rayner’s personal plea will connect with voters who feel frustrated by the omnipresence of Eton graduates in the governing classes.

Why and how?

Tony Blair’s aspiration for fifty per cent of young people to go to university has been replaced by a pledge to think about education holistically, and over a lifetime. Through recommendations around regulation, funding, and infrastructure, the LLC report promises to piece together a sector disconnected from itself, and from problems relating to poverty and power. The “cradle-to-grave” national education service will, Labour hopes, have a widespread appeal – a complex series of policy decisions described in a very straightforward way. Labour’s national education service is also an ideological framework which once again sets out the party’s stall, “for the many, not the few”, with the hope of drawing attention away from the perceived weakness of their position on Brexit.

Like Sajid Javid, we’ll have to wait for the manifesto launch to understand how this will all be paid for. Yesterday the party announced approximate costings of their plans for 2023/24: the national entitlement to L4-6 learning will cost £1.97 billion, and maintenance grants for learners at L4-6 will cost £573 million. At the launch of their new policies, Corbyn defended the pricetag: “the Conservatives say we cannot afford these measures. They are wrong. We cannot afford not to do it. We cannot afford not to invest in […] the people of this country”.

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