Christopher Jackson asks whether it’s now time for a National Education Service and finds a party unsure of the way forward
As Sir Keir Starmer takes the reins of the Labor Party, how can the Party seize the narrative on education and finally connect it to employability?
As you walk through Camberwell, every other house has a rainbow, proclaiming not just that household’s gratitude to the NHS, but the presence of home-schooled children within. Education is all around us in virus season: it is on our minds in a way it hasn’t been for years.
But that can sometimes seem the limit of the good news. ‘Education hasn’t had a good crisis,’ as former education secretary Estelle Morris tells us on page 14. Part of this is due to the peculiar nature of the crisis: for the many senior Labor figures we spoke to for this piece, coronavirus was a problem designed to exacerbate existing problems of inequality and, with children taken out of school, always destined to be a different moment than the frontlines camaraderie that has defined the experience of those working in the NHS.
Of those we spoke with, many lamented the lack of leadership from both the government and from the Labor front bench. During the composition of this piece, Rebecca Long-Bailey was demoted from her role as shadow education secretary due to a retweet of problematic remarks by actress Maxine Peake. She was replaced by Kate Green who at time of going to press was still finding her feet in the job.
With the schools not yet back, all this contributed to a moment of pause. Under the empty skies, it felt like an intellectual reckoning was possible. After a decade of Conservative-led rule where should the left be on education?
A Tale of Two Speeches
Two quotes from two speeches, both given by Labor leaders in Black pool.
The first: ‘Just think of it – Britain, the skills superpower of the world. Why not? Why can’t we do it? Achievement, aspiration fulfilled for all our people.’
The second: ‘Tomorrow’s jobs are in green and high-tech industries. We need people to have the skills to take on those jobs, breathing new life into communities.’
On the face of it, it would be difficult to tell apart the words of Tony Blair in 1996 (the first quotation) and the words of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 (the second). Both open up onto a cherished idea for the Labor Party: that a commitment to education is an integral part of the party’s offer to the electorate.
But scratch the surface, and differences proliferate, which still matter and must be resolved by the still relatively new Labor leader Keir Starmer.
Blair spoke eloquently about investment, and with a can-do spirit about placing education first. But he would likely have seen Jeremy Corbyn’s espousal during the 2019 General Election campaign of a ‘National Education Service (NES)’ which was, like the NHS, ‘free at the point of use’, as a return to the socialist ideas of the past.
As we all know, the Corbyn program was soundly repudiated by the British electorate in December 2019. But looking back at that election, it is startling – and a little depressing – how little education was discussed.
As a result, it would be an exaggeration to say that the public rejected Labor’s education policy. Furthermore, we now inhabit different times where the government – even a Conservative one – has entered our lives in ways which would have seemed fanciful six months ago.
So is the idea still relevant?
And if it isn’t, where should the Labor Party go instead?
Meet the Commission
Among those who advised the government on its life-learning strategy – intended to form part of the NES offer – was the likeable Professor Ewart Keep, who holds a Chair at Oxford University in Education, Training and Skills.
Brought in to assist with the Party’s Lifelong Learning Commission, Keep never felt particularly wedded to the NES idea: ‘Part of the problem was there was a headline slogan that emerged very suddenly and then there was an attempt to put things underneath that heading. We tried to sketch out what adult lifelong learning would look like in the context of an as yet unspecified National Education Service,’ he explains.
There is a degree of comedy here which will feel to some very redolent of Cronyism: the very people brought into produce an enquiry skeptical about its overarching aims.
Internal operatives tell me that things are far slicker under Starmer. Was this an attempt simply to evoke one of Labor’s greatest hits – the NHS – and tether it to an unrelated area? Keep continues: ‘they’re very different activities – particularly when you consider that one of the weaknesses of the NHS is that it doesn’t succeed in preventing illness: you’re treating people who are sick. Education is trying to be a preventative medicine. It felt misleading and not particularly helpful.’
It is this sort of thing which Starmer will need to avoid in order to dodge amused disparagement from the education intelligentsia. When I speak to Phillip Blond, chair of Respublica, he announces cheerfully, ‘I generally regard the left with absolute contempt so you better to talk to Mark.’
This turns out to be Mark Morin, also of Respublica, who has seen the NES idea knocked about for years, ‘and it’s never particularly excited anyone.’ He goes on to point out: ‘On the one hand, you can understand it intuitively with the reference to the NHS and the idea it will kind of bring together all aspects of learning education and skills from cradle to grave – that’s intuitively understood. But when you get past this you’re left with a leftist, statist idea and a big monolithic entity like the NHS.’ For Morin, who points to the poor health outcomes in the UK compared to countries like Germany who have a more localized system, the NHS is not only something the education system couldn’t emulate, such emulation would also not be desirable.
If you talk to Sir Michael Barber (see page 7), Blair’s former chief education advisor, he swiftly disowns himself of anything remotely connected to Cronyism: ‘I would rather just have a conversation about new radical approaches for education.’ For Barber too, the very language of the left opens up onto a grim vista of statism.
A meeting in St James’ Park
When I contact Estelle Morris – now Baroness of Yardley – I am pleased, and a bit surprised, when she says she’d like to meet in person. I take myself up to the ghostly center of town, to St James’ Park on a drizzly July day. We walk along the lake on one of those tentative lockdown days we’ve all had when we’re not sure if our favorite coffee shop will be open. It is, and we sip our coffees, grateful for this minor return to normalcy.
So what exactly is the NES? Like Morin and Barber, Morris is a little baffled. ‘That was my question as well. I thought it was a great idea but there was a real risk it became a slogan and a slogan only. It’s a great concept and I don’t think we filled it out. I’m stuck to have a ten-minute conversation about what we offered about it.’
So is the NES an immediate nonstarter? That’s where Morris differs slightly. For her, everything depends on Labor’s commitment to detail. ‘The NHS represented a radical change and revolution in healthcare. So don’t claim the title unless you’ve done the work. The title doesn’t come before the work.’
It is worth adding that when one reads the speech where Corbyn launched the NES idea, it is noticeably less detailed than a typical pre-power speech by Blair, where the party can sometimes seem to be governing even in opposition. This is a mistake unlikely to be repeated by the more details-oriented Starmer.
So what message does Morris have for Starmer? Now is the time, she says, to launch something truly radical. ‘From 1988 until now, there’s not been a lot of changes in education; the narrative has been the same: national curriculum, national assessment, and external inspection, publication of results, parental choice and focus on standards.’ The tale has been one of back-and-forth between the two major parties and tweaking around the edges. ‘The narrative from 1988 until now has been the same. I don’t think it was wrong to have let that narrative run for as long as we have done. Schools are better now and children get a better deal because of national curriculum accountability. But it’s all come to a natural end.’
But if Morris espouses an end to all this ‘fiddling’, what comes next? ‘We need a debate about the value of art, the value of sports and the value of community service.’
In part, what Morris is espousing is a move away from the so-called character agenda which, though espoused by many Education Secretaries, is now particularly associated with Nicky Morgan, who held the secretary ship at education from 2014 until 2016. Morris wants instead a system which teaches ‘citizenship and wisdom’.
But surely every side of the political spectrum will have a different idea of that? For Boris Johnson, wisdom is Conservatism; for Starmer, it will be socialism. But Morris says this is a debate we urgently need to have. And wisdom she says is difficult to have without some appreciation of the arts.
Perhaps we need to think more about how we promote things we know to be good. The force behind Lee Elliot Major’s proposal of a National Tutoring Service (see page 15) stemmed from the demonstrable value of the one-to-one tutoring experience.
For Susan Coles, the former president of NSEAD who set up an APPG in Parliament to promote greater coverage of the arts in our education system, the benefits of an arts education are equally clear. She worries that character is talked about as a ‘box you tick’ when, in fact, ‘the arts create resilience’ enabling you to ‘follow your own ideas without being wrong.’
For Coles, and for Sharon Hodgson MP who chairs her All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) (see page 27), what we have now is a ‘production line of high performing schools which is strangling the creative arts.’ Coles puts her views with the kindly persuasiveness of the truly passionate: she is one of those campaigners who is herself an advert for the sort of change she wants to see. ‘We’re coerced into believing the knowledge based curriculum is best, when in fact the arts enable us to make mistakes and experiment,’ she explains.
This was one area where Corbyn wasn’t entirely idle in putting forward the detail behind the NES, stating in his Black pool speech: ‘The best is every child being able to learn musical instruments, drama and dance – the things that bring us joy – through our Arts Pupil Premium.’ For Hodgson and Coles this was an exciting moment, scotched only in December 2019 when Johnson was returned to power so thumping.
So should it be part of the NES? While Coles appreciates the idea, she worries it is too little: ‘The only worry I have is there’s no guarantee it will be in the curriculum.’
This, too, is where the eternal argument regarding free schools comes in. The schools minister Nick Gibbs would remind Coles and Hodgson that art is on the curriculum, but Coles – and the likes of writer Michael Rosen – would retort that it ought to be a core subject. Even if you resolve that part of the debate, you’re still left with the fact that academies are not obliged to teach it, and since 80 percent of secondary schools are academies and so are a large number of primaries, that’s a problem. Furthermore, there is the exclusion of the arts from the uber Gove Ian and, to Labor, loathed ‘EBacc.
’For Coles and Hodgson an opportunity is being missed, and for no decent reason. Coles continues: ‘If you do a teaching qualification, you learn how to teach the arts for around 2-3 hours in a 3-year course. So we have a lot of inexperienced teachers who are struggling to teach the arts curriculum.’
The great irony in all this is that the arts appears to benefit the economy. ‘They’re valued by the Treasury but not by the education department and DCMS,’ says Hodgson.
The Bonfire of the Quangos
This opens up onto another perennial question: that of the structure of the entire system, and indeed the very nature of our civil service and the balance between national and local government.
When I ask Professor Keep where he would begin in terms of fixing the English education system, he says. ‘The problem in England is that it’s very siloes.
Even different bits of DfE don’t talk to one another. In education, central government controls so much. They have to deal with such a level of detail: it’s difficult for them to grasp the big picture.’
So what needs to change? ‘We’ve gradually abolished all the intermediary bodies, which means everything’s an atomized marketplace. This isn’t functional for those who have to run it, and deliver education. I’d want to create relatively independent organizations which can act as a bridge between government and providers and also as a bridge between government and employers.’
Keep is referring to the Learning and Skills Council (abolished in 2015-16) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which was wound down in March 2017. For Keep, the restitution of these would necessarily exist alongside some devolution of power and decision-making to the regions. The overall goal would be ‘bottom up thinking’ and a move away from a system where everything is ‘controlled by the minister.’
Mark Morin partially agrees: ‘We had the bonfire of the quangos under the Coalition. Some were well-deserving of that. The Commission for Employment and Skills was one of the most useless, and survived for a long time.’
Morin argues that any National Education Service would need to be rebranded along devolved lines: ‘It can be packaged in a different way and be marketed in a different way, with devolution at the heart of how this is going to be funded,’ he explains.
The civil service also needs a rethink, according to Keep. ‘Most civil servants do 18 months tops within a role. Every time I go to a meeting on higher education, it’s a totally different room of people. The last lot have all bloody left.’ This is a view echoed by Sir Michael Barber on page seven of this publication.
At the same time, we have a university system that increasingly seems unfit for purpose, and struggling to adapt to the new realities of online learning.
Keep explains: ‘A lot of universities were in big financial trouble before Covid-19 arrived. After 2009, many went and splurged vast amounts of borrowed money on new nice halls of residence, new nice student bars, and gymnasiums – and of course it’s all borrowed from the banks. £8 billion of borrowing has to be repaid, and the interest rate racks up on that.’ So how bad is it? ‘There were strong rumors there were at least 20 universities in England that were likely to get into significant financial difficulties in the next year and you can increase that number very considerably now.’
Morin adds: ‘We’ve created something that is too big to fail. Our universities are in trouble. How do we bail them out? One bad decision has been compounding another. We argued in the report we put out an the end of last year that we needed to stop sending so many people to university.
Does Respublica have any specific proposals? ‘We’ve argued that we need to get rid of tuition fees. It’s a smoke and mirrors thing, it’s just accounting practices: in effect, the government picks up the tab for those who can’t afford it. It’s basically a tax on those who can afford to pay for it because they graduate and earn enough to trigger a repayment. The real issue is we’re sending too many people to university, but to what purpose?’
That’s a view echoed also by Euan Blair, the tech entrepreneur with the famous father whose business White Hat, which he chairs, is unafraid to proclaim university a waste of time. Talking to Blair is a curious education in the Blair genetics and how they have played out in the next generation. It is as if the same incisiveness and ability to explain complex things in simple language which saw his father dominate British politics for a decade has been handed down a generation into a born tech entrepreneur.
For Blair, universities have failed to prepare children properly for an AI-dominated labor market. ‘I think that there will always be and should always be a place for purely academic learning in a university environment,’ he admits. ‘The challenge is that the system has become this monopoly on early careers in a really negative way. That’s made universities complacent and it’s created this lack of equal access to opportunity, particularly around careers.’
Whether Labor chooses to proceed with a National Education Service or with some other label, the Starmer offer will need to address a creaking university system, as well as the question of digital poverty in an age of online learning, and the perennial question of lifelong learning. If this is done meticulously, perhaps something will emerge worthy of the NES brand name
Will You Still Feed Me?
Stephen Evans, the CEO of the Learning and Work Institute, sat on the same commission as Keep in the run-up to the 2019 general election. For him, if the National Education Service is to have any meaning then it needs to solve the problem of keeping adults learning throughout life.
He argues that lifelong learning can come in many forms from an apprenticeship to a change of career, or it can come in the form of informal community classes.
‘We need to build a more coherent system,’ he tells me over Zoom. ‘For me the NES was about this idea that we need to do much more learning throughout life.’ What kind of financial structures is he espousing? ‘Clearly you don’t need government to fund some lifelong learning. But for those people who missed out and struggled at school, they might need to be covered by a National Education Service. The question is: ‘How do we create a culture of learning and get more people wanting to go back into learning?’
So it would be something of a patchwork quilt model? ‘If you’ve already got a degree, you’re more likely to get training at work. And if you’ve got no qualifications, I would say the government should have a role alongside trade unions and others to try and reverse some of those inequalities.’
Keep agrees: ‘Lots of adults receive no training from their employers. A lot of the adult workforce leave school and college, and then don’t get much training. If you’re in a low paid job, the chances of getting trained are very limited. When you look at England and the UK as a whole, we’re a long way behind many developed countries.’ When does the problem date from? ‘In 2010, funding for it got cut, and the adult education budget has declined by more than 45 percent and there’s a lot less money from the government. Employers are doing less and less.’
The Shape of Things to Come
I begin to get a sense of what this might look like. A National Education Service would need to intelligently join up the dots.
It might involve an acceptance of how we are failing to promote the arts, but also make us think in a more joined up way about the digital side, looking to tackle digital poverty (as outlined by Sir Michael Barber on page 7). It might also incorporate some of Lee Elliot Major’s ideas on tutoring, and build on what has already been agreed to by the Johnson administration (see page 15); the NES could potentially expand them into some form of mentoring service. The project might also involve greater investment in apprenticeships (see Robert Halfon on page 13), and a lifelong learning approach, where the state intervenes strategically to satisfy existing gaps. All this might be capped by Estelle Morris’ commitment to the promotion of wisdom and citizenship in place of – or perhaps in addition to – the Conservative years’ emphasis on character-building.
All in all, Starmer’s Labor has a complex inheritance on education. It has produced a reasonably compelling idea too soon, without, as Morris says, having done sufficient work. The spectre of Tony Blair cannot now be entirely dismissed after the 2019 general election defeat, but he remains a figure whose toxicity remains surprisingly persistent
Alongside these internal developments, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the system and developments under successive Conservative-led governments. If all these points could be joined up, they might make a compelling proposition.
A final complexity is the precise historical circumstances Starmer finds himself in – or ‘events, dear boy, events’ as Harold Macmillan had it. A coherent education policy must be enacted, and priorities established, at a time when the virus, Black Lives Matter (see our leader on page two), climate change, and the new realities of work in the furlough era must also be solved.
The fact remains that Starmer will need to unite the left and the right of his party on one of its core priorities. One way to do this might be to appropriate a slogan from the Corbin era but put some more intricate and thoughtful policies underneath it. Another way would be to admit that the NES is tarnished, and find some new banner under which to build a new platform.
Much will naturally depend on Starmer himself. So what are the new leader’s instincts on education?
There is surprisingly little in the public domain on this, and Labour operatives we spoke to talked of a tight-knit disciplined circle where there are few leaks as to what the leadership is thinking.
Lee Elliot Major recalls meeting the future Labour leader in their shared constituency during the Corbyn years: ‘I met Keir for coffee. He was on top of all the education issues of that day. At that point we were in the world of Corbyn, and at that time you were thinking someone like Starmer wouldn’t get in. Though education wasn’t his brief, he grilled me. He’s not ideologically obsessed: voters will vote for that, generally people like I worry about extremes.’
As often with Starmer, this sounds promising. But it’s early days, and, wherever the party ends up on this, work has to be done – and everybody who contributed to this piece agrees there’s not a moment to lose.