Is a National Education Service economically possible?
More than 70 years after a Labour government transformed healthcare with the creation of the National Health Service, Jeremy Corbyn’s party is pledging to create a unified National Education Service providing cradle-to-grave learning free at the point of use. But are the plans deliverable? George Ryan looks at the party’s flagship education policy
Ahead of launch of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948, a folded leaflet was delivered to every household in the UK. The austere-looking document set out what the public could expect from their new health service. “Everyone – rich or poor, man, woman or child – can use it or any part of it,” the pamphlet read.
It was also clear where the funding came from: “It is not a ‘charity’. You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers”.
Almost 50 years later, the Labour Party’s 2017 general election manifesto called for the creation of a new National Education Service (NES).
It is not as clear how the NES would be funded – it certainly wouldn't be a “charity” either. Some of the costs, but not all, would be recouped by a planned increase in corporation tax if John McDonnell were at Number 11. The remainder would likely come from general taxation and other pre-existing budgets, although this detail has not yet been announced.
What is much clearer is who the NES would be for. Evoking imagery of the NHS, the new service “move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use”. The NES would be built on the principle that “every child and adult matters” and will incorporate all forms of education, from early years nursery places through to adult education courses, offering everyone access to education.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner says the NES is based on the same values that built the NHS. “We're all better off when free healthcare is available for everyone, from cradle to grave, funded by fair taxes,” she says. “That principle led us to develop our NES, which is an integrated set of institutions offering free education, from cradle to grave, to all, and for the public good."
Gordon Marsden, a shadow minister in Labour's frontbench education team, tells us the NES is right to be compared to its cousin in the NHS, but they will be different beasts.
“In one sense it's the same, in that we're trying to get a system that will operate from the start of life to the end of life. However, it's not the same as the NHS in 1948 as it's not going to as centralised. It will be locally administered.
“It is about building bridges with every stage of the learning process – to give people second, third chances, throughout their lives.”
The much-reported stand-out pledge from Labour's education platform going into the 2017 general election was a promise to scrap university tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants.
But the NES policy goes much further, promising, among other things, an overhaul of childcare by extending the 30-hours free entitlement to all two-year-olds, reversing cuts to schools funding leading to a 10 per cent real-terms cash boost per pupil, bringing back the educational maintenance allowance for 16- to 19-year-olds, as well as making courses for adult learners free at colleges.
All of this would come at a cost. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that the policies would add around £17 billion to public spending a year. This works out around £8 billion for scrapping tuition fees and £9 billion for early years, schools and colleges.
Aneurin Bevan, the minister of health who delivered the NHS, once famously remarked that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism.”
Lord Blunkett, who served as education secretary for four years in the New Labour government, urges Jeremy Corbyn and Rayner to bear Bevan’s words in mind with its education plans, and to prioritise boosting investment over implementing new education reforms.
“An incoming Labour government should consolidate the progress made from 1997 by the previous Labour government, and should learn the lessons of what worked and what didn't work. They don't need to reinvent the wheel,” Blunkett tells The House.
“As for actually resourcing it I don't think any government could manage both scrapping university fees and the other NES proposals. I would prioritise the early years funding and reinvesting in those parts of the country where there has been a massive under investment in schools.”
IFS education research fellow Luke Sibieta said the plans do not compare with the revolution that the NHS ushered in. “It's not overly clear how the NES differs from what we already have, because it is already free at the point of use from the age of three to 21. It's mostly about packaging together increases in education spending across different stages of education,” he says.
Despite the costs, Mr Sibietta suggests that investing in education can produce long-term savings for the exchequer. “The evidence, particularly from the USA, is quite clear that investing more money in terms of schools or early years does result in long-term returns.”
The success of the Schools Cuts campaign helped push education funding up the political agenda during the 2017 election. The campaign centred on an online tool, created by the National Union of Teachers, where parents could search the name of a local school to find out how much its budget had been cut by since the Conservatives entered government in 2010. The tool broke down the figures into the equivalent number of teachers lost at each school.
Polling company Survation found more than 10% of voters changed their mind about who to vote for due to school funding policy – the equivalent of 795,000 people switching their vote.
To help redress this, education secretary Damian Hinds has signalled he will lobby the Treasury for greater funding for education, particularly schools and colleges, in the upcoming comprehensive spending review.
Since Labour's manifesto was published there have been some changes in the education landscape that make Labour's NES proposals appear more deliverable.
In February 2018, prime minister Theresa May announced a review of post-18 education and funding, chaired by former financier Phillip Augar. The review, delayed by Brexit, is expected to report soon. It is likely to recommend lower tuition fees and a redistribution of funding away from universities and towards further education colleges and a suite of new higher technical qualifications.
If it were to go further and recommend a move towards a graduate tax to pay for university education, that would meet Labour's “free at the point of use” requirements.
This would be within the terms of reference set by the government for the review to “maintain the principle that students should contribute to the cost of their studies while ensuring that payments are progressive and income contingent”. Whether the government would agree to such a bold move is another matter.
In December, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reclassified how student debt was counted towards the figures for the deficit.
This could make getting rid of higher education fees appear cheaper in the short-term, because the ONS now counts the figures in its calculations of the deficit any way, but it would end up costing the same in the long run.
In a lot of ways, the NES appears to be clever branding for swathes of investment in the education system. It could be genuinely transformative, particularly in early years and adult education.
The case for improving education is clear and popular at the ballot box. But whether there is the appetite among voters for picking up the bill through high taxes remains to be seen.
George Ryan is a former reporter at the Times Educational Supplement. He can be found tweeting @GeorgeMRyan