Gordon Marsden: Labour’s education strategy can address the challenges of the future

Posted On: 
28th September 2017

Labour has positive proposals on skills and learning, from career-boosting apprenticeships, to a National Education Service, says Gordon Marsden 

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The challenge for all of us on apprenticeships and skills is not just for the year ahead, but also for the long-term prosperity of our economy. We must be ready to accept and embrace that working models and expectations for many adults and young people will change radically. That means more self-employment, more juggling of part-time jobs, more engagement with small businesses, and individuals facing more demands from complex family structures.

With the fledging Institute for Apprenticeships and Further Education only a few months old and sweeping changes to technical education adding to its remit next year, the landscape for skills is evolving. It’s critical we enable young people to get out of the starting gate, using traineeships as a tool for progressing to apprenticeships and skills pathways. But we must also continue to look at the labour market and apprenticeships that not only provide skills, but careers.

There are three quite disparate but powerful areas of potential growth to provide jobs. One – retail, which will have to respond to more complex population demands. Two – the visitor economy and experiences, both from the UK population and international tourists. Three – social care for adults, where there have been massive increases in longevity but also in debilitating conditions.

The common denominator of these is that they’re largely in the service sector. That does not mean ignoring the 15 routes or their technical emphasis laid down by Lord Sainsbury as strategies to build skills for individual sectors, but understanding that jobs – in particular in retraining and skilling – will need to come from the service sector. We should reflect that by providing national and devolved local initiatives focused on increasing basic skills.

We need to think how we utilise and integrate the EU citizens who will remain here after whatever Brexit deal is done. They’re part of an adaptable and innovative workforce, as indeed are settled residents from non-EU countries, but they too will need strategies for reskilling. There needs to be a greater emphasis on supporting ESOL, which this government is currently neglecting.

We need more focus on the potential role of unions. Labour’s Workplace 2020 initiative should embrace a strategy for using and empowering union learning reps – expanding their numbers, resources and remit. That’s true for their part in encouraging ‘enabling’ skills for adult learners as well as for ‘bespoke’ skills meeting the here-and-now needs of existing employers and their employees.

This will not only help future-proof our economy, but also deliver a boost to living standards (and productivity) at a time when rising inflation and a proliferation of low-wage and insecure jobs have left working people with a cut in real income.

We must also address – both for social mobility and social justice – continuing gaps in skills and support. Labour talked about ‘left behind’ groups in debates during the technical and further education bill where we repeatedly challenged the government, including alternative templates for the Institute for Apprenticeships with targets to increase participation by care leavers, people with disabilities, BAME groups, and younger ex-service veterans.

In our general election manifesto, we pledged to embed a free-at-the-point-of-use system for lifelong learning. The lifelong learning commission in that manifesto, which we proposed as new clause 15 to the HE bill, would be a crucial mechanism in this process, looking at bringing progression and credit accumulation together across HE and FE, and producing a framework to deliver it.

This would benefit workers who are either currently in low-skill, low-wage work and need to upskill, or the millions whose future jobs may be at risk from automation who will need to retrain. Unlike the minority Tories just trying to muddle through to 2022, our plans for a National Education Service are part of an overarching narrative taking us right through the 2020s. It is a strategy which can address the challenges of the future, giving everyone the ability to gain the skills that will help them live fulfilling lives.