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Social justice must be the beating heart of our education policy

Social justice must be the beating heart of our education policy
4 min read

By extending the ladder of opportunity to those who currently lack it, and by nurturing our raw talents more generally, we can build the brightest of futures for us all, says Robert Halfon MP. 

Skills, social justice, standards, and support for the profession should be the four interlocking foundations of this government’s education programme. 

There is enormous talent all over the country, just waiting to be unleashed. But to do this, we must help lower-skilled workers to train and boost their wages.

Around 6 million adults are not qualified to GCSE level. Many end up in low-paid jobs – their prospects dragged into the quick-sand. A wave of lost opportunity is also about to come crashing down on the next generation, too, as a third of England’s 16-19-year olds lack basic skills. 

On top of this, 28% of jobs taken by 16-24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s. 

First, the Government should turbo-charge adult learning. Overall adult learning is the lowest it has been since 1996 and employer training has stagnated. Why not develop the National Retraining Scheme to focus on training for low-skilled workers into roles that align with our labour market? 

There is an opportunity to build a world-class apprenticeships programme. The levy needs to be reformed so that it supports more apprenticeships in SMEs, and school leavers into areas of skills shortages. There needs to be clearer progression routes from lower to higher apprenticeships. Degree apprenticeships could be a crown jewel in a revamped technical offering.

Social justice must be the beating heart of our education policy. A bold, assertive agenda that has compassion and aspiration right at its core.

There is much to do. Disadvantaged pupils are 19 months behind by the time they do their GCSEs. And some groups are particularly vulnerable – while the average national Attainment 8 score is 46.5, rates for pupils with SEN statements/EHC plans are 13.5, looked after children 18.8, and white working-class pupils 28.5.

First, everyone across the country should have access to a good school. A child living in one of England’s poorest areas is 10 times more likely to go to a sub-standard school than one living in its richest areas. 

Schools in many deprived areas struggle to attract experienced teachers, who are so instrumental in driving up quality. In the most disadvantaged quintile of areas, 67% of secondary schools are rated good or outstanding for the quality of teaching; in the wealthiest quintile the figure is 93%.

These obstacles to learning should be dismantled.

To support the profession and the development of local teachers, we should incentivise highly commended initial teacher training providers to work with disadvantaged schools and develop top-class training routes. 

We must continue to attract the brightest individuals. The manifesto pledge to boost starting salaries to £30,000 will help enormously. We should monitor recruitment rates in shortage subjects, and target training bursaries, retention payments and salary bonuses accordingly. 

And we should offer teaching bursaries, retention payments and salary bonuses to good teachers in challenging areas, to make sure we avoid flight of local talent.

Educational standards are improving. The proportion of six-year-olds passing the phonics check increased from 58% in 2012 to 82% in 2018. New, more rigorous apprenticeship standards are replacing older frameworks. In the last decade, 1.8 million more pupils studied in good or outstanding schools. And we have some of the finest universities in the world. 

The Department for Education must now build on this and continue to export rigour to every part of our education system.

That includes technical education. FE colleges do an amazing job even though their budgets have lagged other areas.

But there is only so much they can do without additional resources.

The Conservative manifesto’s £2 billion commitment to improving capital expenditure is a significant step forward. And the spending round’s one-year settlement, which will pump £400m into 16-19 education for 2020-21. We should build on this by carefully calculating, and meeting, required levels of investment beyond this.

We should also offer top-quality childcare. Almost half of disadvantaged children are already behind when they start primary school, and good quality childcare can help plug this gap. Children who attend high-quality settings for 2–3 years are almost 8 months ahead of children who attend none. 

However, some of our early years workforce is underqualified. There is considerable scope to scale up the role of apprenticeships in this area and we should use higher-apprenticeships to address skills shortages.

So, to sum up

Skills, social justice, standards, and support for the profession. These should be the four pillars of the government’s education programme.

By extending the ladder of opportunity to those who currently lack it, and by nurturing our raw talents more generally, we can build the brightest of futures for us all.


Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. 

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