Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Whether it is Boris Johnson’s £4.6 billion earmarked for schools, or his pledge to boost funding for apprenticeships, education has received vital oxygen during this leadership contest.
The Education Select Committee’s upcoming report on school funding, which we will publish later this week, supports the logic of these pledges – in particular, the need to support further education, which has for too long been considered the Cinderella sector.
But we must look beyond this. Education policy is an enormous montage of different worlds. In the months and years ahead, the new Prime Minister should collect these into one ambitious strategy. He can do this by focusing on the following four “S”s: skills, social justice, standards, and support for the profession.
Around nine million working aged adults in England have low literacy and/or numeracy skills. Many end up in low-skill, low-paid jobs – their life prospects dragged into the quicksand. And a third of England’s 16-19-year-olds have low basic skills. We must urgently address this by building on the fine work of Damian Hinds and Anne Milton.
In particular, the new Conservative Government should build a world-class apprenticeship offer. It is vital to better understand what is driving the dramatic decline in Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeships, and increasing FE funding is a necessity. We would be in a remarkable position if we were able to offer an apprenticeship to every single young person in our country who wanted one.
In terms of lifelong learning, we should build an adult community learning centre in every town, restructure existing employer tax reliefs so that they receive more generous relief when investing in low-skilled employees, and introduce a social justice tax credit, which would expand the number of employers who benefit from tax breaks when they invest in training for low-skilled workers in areas of skills needs.
The curriculum also needs reappraising to make sure our country is ready for the march of the robots. 28 per cent of jobs taken by 16-24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s; many low-skilled jobs are at risk and even higher skilled jobs are not immune. Policy makers must consider what it means to develop the skills of the future, and how best to do this. There should be a Royal Commission, with the finest scientists, economists and academics in the land, looking at the effect that AI, automation, and robots will have on society, the economy and our education system, as well as how we should respond to these challenges.
Degree apprenticeships, the crown jewel in higher education, should be at the heart of our higher education offering. The Government must aim to have at least 50 per cent of students doing degree apprenticeships. They allow students to get good quality jobs and earn whilst they learn without a lead weight of £50,000 dragging from their feet.
It is time to reflect on what we consider to be an ‘elite university’. Do they just have good research rankings or are they institutions that deliver high graduate employment outcomes, meet our skills needs and address social disadvantage? We must better recognise the unsung heroes of higher education, like Portsmouth University which came top of The Economist’s “value-added” university rankings (this compares graduates’ wages with what they would have been expected to earn if they had not gone to that university), or Nottingham Trent which has exceptionally high numbers of disadvantaged students and incredibly high destination outcomes.
Second, social justice.
Currently, social injustice inhabits every part of our education system. Almost half of children eligible for free school meals are not ready for primary school. Disadvantaged children are 19 months behind by the time they do their GCSEs. Just 33 per cent of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs. And the most disadvantaged students are almost four times less likely to go to university than the most advantaged students.
Good schools are not just bastions of learning but also places of community. And yet schools in many deprived areas struggle to attract experienced teachers and leaders, who are so instrumental in driving up quality. Teachers in disadvantaged areas are also less likely to teach subjects in which they are qualified, and access to good initial teacher training varies by geography.
So how to dismantle these obstacles to learning? Social justice must be the beating heart of our education policy. A bold, assertive agenda that has compassion and aspiration right at its core.
The DfE should incentivise elite initial teacher training providers to set up shop in disadvantaged areas and support the subsequent development of local teachers. This might involve new funding, but they could also consider making use of existing funds – for example, we spend £72 million on opportunity areas, although we don’t really know exactly what impact they are having.
Disadvantaged pupils should also enjoy the benefits associated with our best private schools, including extensive social capital. I attended a private school and am a huge fan of their transformative potential. But, given the extensive charitable benefits that private schools get, they must do more to open their gates to acutely disadvantaged pupils. This could be done by better incentivising schools through the tax system.
There is no doubt that education has improved in recent years. I have a great deal of admiration for the work the Government – and in particular, Nick Gibb – has done to improve standards.
The evidence is clear. The Government has furnished our children’s education with more rigour. The proportion of six year olds passing the phonics check increased from 58 per cent in 2012 to 82 per cent in 2018. We are stripping out qualifications that hold no real currency. Our Free Schools Programme continues to produce such gems as King’s College London Mathematics School. Since 2010, 1.8 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools. And we have some of the finest universities in the world.
It is important to build on this and export rigour to every part of our education system and that includes technical education. The Government is starting to do this in its post-16 Skills Plan, which will produce a smaller number of T-Level qualifications that employers recognise and value. The next step is to make sure these new qualifications land safely.
The Free Schools Programme must emphasise community and not get subsumed into larger academies’ broader programmes. And we must apply the logic of high standards to non-mainstream alternative provision, where 1.1 per cent of pupils achieve five good GCSE passes and the supply of good schools is highly variable.
Finally, support for the profession.
It is vital that we support our teachers. We can build the best facilities in the world, but without their most precious element, they are just empty shells.
The education sector needs to continue to attract the brightest individuals. And the Government should support their professional development. We can learn lessons from countries that have a strong record in this area, such as Singapore, which gives classroom teachers more flexibility to hone their trade; places an unusually strong emphasis on peer support (around four fifths are either mentored or a mentor); and has a clearly defined ladder of career progression.
It is also important to make teachers’ lives easier. According to the OECD’s latest international survey, our teachers work more than they used to, and their working week is higher than average. Teachers also spend less time teaching than they did five years ago. Our next Prime Minister must free teachers from unnecessary bureaucracy, and give them more time to do what they do best: teach.
So to sum up.
Skills, social justice, standards, and support for the profession. These should be the four, interlocking foundations of the next Prime Minister’s education programme. Together, they allow those who cannot even see the ladder of opportunity to find it, and they give us all the chance to climb high and build prosperity.
Some of this can only be delivered with wisely targeted resources, but funding alone is not the answer. These four foundations are as much about ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, as they are about hard cash.
We have a unique chance to address the broad restlessness that exists in society. By extending the ladder of opportunity to those who currently lack it, and by nurturing our raw talents more generally, we can ensure the next generation climbs that ladder and gets the jobs, security, and prosperity that they, and our country, need. It is well within our ability to make sure this happens.