Shifting the gear of our education system: making lifelong learning its driving principle
The tone the Labour Party attempted to strike at their 2018 Conference was of rebuilding and reuniting a divided country. While Brexit may once again have grabbed all the headlines, central to achieving the conference slogan of ‘Rebuilding Britain for the many not the few’ will be creating an effective lifelong system of education. It was in this context that the Centre for Progressive Policy brought together members of parliament with leaders from across the skills system for a private roundtable at the conference fringe.
In light of the Labour Party’s proposals for a National Education Service, there was frank and open discussion about how to build a skills system capable of preparing young people for the world of work, upskilling those in low paid jobs and retraining older workers displaced by a rapidly evolving labour market.
The five key takeaways from the session were:
- Place: The roundtable found a position of near unanimity on the need for place‐based policy for skills and lifelong learning. Among other things, local government should be cultivating collaboration between colleges and local businesses. One of the great strengths of the German system – so lauded by many – is that learning providers and employers work together in systems of local exchange that have been deeply embedded for decades. The discussion also touched on the need for skills devolution to go further if local areas are to meet the needs of their local economies, as argued for by CPP in its skills publication earlier this year. Locally driven skills policy can also align with other placed-based initiatives on infrastructure, housing and health.
- Self-agency and healing divisions: Often debates on skills policy focus so much on the ‘what’ that we forget the ‘why’, overlooking the human cost of a dysfunctional system. As such, it was encouraging to see the discussion frequently return to the need to go beyond a managerial understanding of skills and realise that it is central to issues such as class, identity and self‐agency. Skills policy can and should be front and centre in any Labour Party strategy to respond to the deep divisions in society and reconnect left‐behind communities.
- Radicalism: In his leaders’ speech on the Wednesday of conference, Jeremy Corbyn called for a ‘radical plan to rebuild and transform our country’. Looking at the failure of the skills system over the past decades, it is tempting to conclude that this is a policy area that is ripe for radicalism. Yet, given the detrimental levels of policy churn that has come to characterise the sector, participants were reluctant to call for more wholesale reform, warning against more ‘initiative-itis’. While we of course need to be radical in our expectations of what the skills system can achieve, first we must focus on getting the fundamentals right and allow some stability to emerge.
- Building a culture of learning: In order to have a truly lifelong education system where adults and young people alike feel able to engage in education, a culture of learning needs to be built. This is particularly important in the pockets of deprivation across the country, where families – and often whole communities – become largely disengaged and disenfranchised from the education system from a young age. One participant identified persuading people who in the past have had a bad experience of education to re-engage with the system as a key challenge.
- HE vs FE: If there is one topic that is guaranteed to come up in any discussion on the skills system, it is the need for ‘parity of esteem’ with higher education. While attitudes to apprenticeships may be beginning to shift, there is still much to do. With 49% of recent graduates in non-graduate jobs, the skills system must stand ready with a high-quality offer for those losing patience with the standard three-year undergraduate degree. Related to this, some participants identified the need for higher and further education to become more integrated and operate less as silos.
While there was some optimism among the group, one participant lamented the lack of progress made in the skills system, recalling having had similar conversations at conference ten years ago. The Centre for Progressive Policy will be weaving the five key insights that emerged from this excellent session into its ongoing place-based and national level work, hopefully helping to ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same position, having the same debates, in another ten years’ time.
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