Labour must commit to creating equality across the education system

Liam-Byrne-012Recently Liam Byrne published a document setting out his vision for further and higher education policy. There’s a lot to be positive about in the report – it’s clear that the shadow minister for universities, science and skills understands the real potential that a revitalised vocational education system has in fuelling economic growth and improving people’s prospects.

The pamphlet places a lot of emphasis on the importance of collaboration between colleges and universities. It also looks at how partnerships with employers can help build a curriculum that meets industry needs. Education policy has been focused on contrived competition for far too long and it’s crucial that whoever wins the next election considers how to redress this and what practical steps can be taken to properly incentivise employer engagement. It was also great to hear the promise of a more coherent approach to advice services and financial support to improve the awareness of and access to higher level vocational training. Although Labour is heading in the right direction, it needs to go much further in its plans. Below are some of the ideas I would like to see the party adopt. A commitment to treating all parts of the education system fairly There is too much inequality with funding across the education system. The 17.5% cut in funding for 18-year-olds unfairly penalises further education students and I’d like to see Labour make a commitment to reviewing the decision if they get into power. The same principle of fairness also needs to be applied to accountability. It isn’t right that vocational courses are judged by the government purely on whether they lead directly to a job, whereas this isn’t true of academic programmes. All education is as much about building personal qualities, such as self-esteem and resilience, as it is about preparing people for working life. When assessing if a course is successful, the same criteria should be applied, whether delivered by a college, school or university. Ofsted should be asked to look at a broader range of issues when inspecting colleges Ofsted inspections should be about more than data and lesson observations. We need to be clear that the effectiveness of a college is about its standing in its community, its reputation among students and employers, and its role in the development of its local workforce and economy. None of these areas can be clearly judged by success rate data or by measuring what proportion of learners go into employment or further education. Not least because economic conditions vary across the country, so a good rate of progression in one city might be a poor one in another. In 2011, Baroness Sharp described colleges as the dynamic nucleus of their community and Ofsted needs to take this into account when inspecting providers. Inspectors should talk to students and employers about their college – and find a way of recording how they feel as part of the resulting commentary. These feelings should be just as important as the headline data when reports are written. Many colleges can also quantify their economic impact, for example by showing the income brought into the area by students or the new start ups its helped develop, and this should be included in reports. An end to knee-jerk new policies and institutions It would be great if in the run up to the election Labour wasn’t sucked in by the apparent need to present new initiatives and, as often comes along with this, new institutions, particularly when it comes to addressing the skills gap. Colleges already make a massive contribution to the delivery of higher level technical skills – more than 180,000 students graduated in this area last year. They need to be allowed to develop an offer that suits the needs of their local area, rather than new institutions being added to the landscape to further complicate the system. In August, Labour called for the creation of technical universities, but they already exist through the many partnerships between colleges and universities. We do not need brand new institutions to do something that’s already being achieved. Let’s stop talking about the forgotten 50% Although their intentions might be good, it’s unhelpful for politicians to continue talking about vocational reform in relation to a forgotten 50% of young people. Vocational education should be accessible to all and evoking the idea that it’s for a particular section of society detracts from this. If we are going to develop a successful education system, there should be no perceived distinction between the relative value of different educational pathways. I’m worried that how the debate is currently framed risks reinforcing prejudices that exist towards vocational learning and who it is for. So, let’s go further and commit to viewing all further and higher education as part of one system, which is fairly funded by the government, with all learners able to access the same kind of financial support. Let’s free accountability from the shackles of qualifications and develop a much more sophisticated approach to measuring performance. And let’s invest in the institutions we already have to deliver what the country and its people need.

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