We at Conservatives for Liberty headquarters were not very impressed with the Budget. Hammering the self-employed with tax rises and failing to walk the walk on fiscal discipline is not what we want to see from a Conservative Government. The only major positive was the baby steps in the right direction in education policy.
The “T-Level” system has huge potential and this country cannot afford for it not to be realised. For decades, successive governments have neglected technical education to the detriment of our economy and millions of young people who have missed out on learning skills that would help them compete in an increasingly global jobs market.
In the long gone tripartite system there were too few grammar schools and too many poor secondary moderns; but it was the failure to build a nationwide network of technical colleges that was the primary weak spot. Lo and behold, none the systematic problems were solved by abolishing grammars.
It’s all very well saying that we need to equip ourselves for a post-Brexit world, but it’s the poor productivity and dearth of skills in our young workforce that highlights the need for this issue to be resolved. There needs to be a change in attitude across the board in how we view vocational education. Children who want to learn a trade from the age of 16 rather taking an academic route, for which many are unsuited, should be positively encouraged to do so. British snobbery to technical education is a folly we must overcome.
How can we look down our noses on vocational education while looking on jealously at the superior manufacturing base and GDP of Germany with its skilled and productive workforce? In Germany young people learn a trade through the Dual vocational training system. In the dual system, pupils attend classes at a vocational school and receive on-the-job-training at a company. Germany’s successful combination of academic studies and on-the-job training is admired all over the world. It’s not something to be sniffed at.
England’s technical education system is weak by comparison. Only 10 per cent of 20 to 45-year-olds hold technical education as their highest qualification, placing the UK 16th out of 20 OECD countries. If we want to reverse this decline, which is forecasted to get worse, we cannot afford another false dawn.
The T-level plans will increase the hours students train by 50% and replace the current 13,000 qualifications with 15. Extra funding of £500 million a year will pay for the new system, according to the government. The policy is set to be further fleshed out but I feel tentatively optimistic that this is, at least, a step in the right direction.
The announcement of T-levels came as part of a wider investment in education, with the Chancellor pledging another £500 million for the creation of new free schools, including new grammar schools. (Incidentally, Germany – often praised by the Left for its industrial strategy – also has grammar schools.) Free school transport will also be extended to include all children on free school meals who attend selective schools.
Overall, some pleasing sounds; but if only they would go further. Genuine radicalism in education cannot be implemented by a government with a slim majority, but radicalism is exactly what our country’s education system needs. A true education revolution means progressively freeing schools from state control, encouraging competition and innovation and providing parents and children with freedom of choice in a diverse system.
The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 banned the opening of new grammar schools; the ban should be lifted. The argument that they promote segregation by wealth based on a tiny sample of the few left in Kent ignores the fact the selection by wealth is a cold, hard fact of the comprehensive system. It says very little about the potential of a wider network of modern selective schools free to open where there is demand.
Furthermore, we need to get over our squeamishness about private investment and the profit motive and allow private education providers and investors to set up, own and operate their own free schools and technical colleges. Demand for school places and funding is not being met, and 500 million a year is unlikely to enough for technical education to really take off; the private sector can fill a void.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Private schools and colleges run by profit-making companies will be established where there is need, thereby meeting demand, and the principles of competition and the profit motive will raise standards. The state must then refrain from trying to over regulate them; no standardised teacher pay scale and no national curriculum. Allow them to pay the salaries they need to attract the very best teaching talent, reward core subjects with the heaviest workload and give them the freedom to innovate and work according to their own ethos.
The limp objection, “but what if they fail?” is always raised. With the image conveyed of a bunch of amoral fat cats running off with bags off cash as the school closes. The obvious answer is that individual institutions may well sometimes fail, but there is clearly every inventive to succeed.
In any case, state comprehensives fail and harm children’s education all the time. Decrepit schools with badly performing teachers that are very difficult to sack, with failing senior management and consistently bad results severely damage children’s life chances, and reforming them or shutting them down is a painful and drawn-out process. Let’s not be dewy eyed about the state sector.
Do parents really care if schools are privately owned or even, horror of horrors, operate as a profit making business? I doubt it; they want to be able to send their children to good schools. End of. They want their children to receive a top class education that will furnish their minds with knowledge and provide them with the skills to get on in life. Choice, diversity and competition in the system can achieve this.
Sadly, the Liberal revolution in education will have to wait….
Ben Kelly is an Executive Director of Conservatives for Liberty.