Ed Miliband's 2012 speech to the Labour Party Conference was eye catching for its spontaneous and seemingly unscripted delivery. In policy terms however it may well also be remembered over time as the moment when Labour finally 'got it' in terms of skills and vocational education - for the many and not just the few!
State school educated, Miliband chose to focus on 'the forgotten 50%' - a deliberately provocative rejoinder to Tony Blair's target of 50% of young people going on to university. His announcement demonstrates the value the current leader of the Labour party places on vocational expertise and technology alongside erudition and academic education.
Ed has committed Labour to the Technical Baccalaureate as a means, he believes, of ensuring Britain develops a broad based, vocationally skilled and globally competitive workforce. This is the clearest indication yet that in power Labour will adopt a significantly different policy direction on skills than previous administrations.
Tony Blair made a laudable but ultimately lamentable attempt to create a fairer society through a misguided policy designed to engineer social mobility by giving more people access to the same type of university education he himself had experienced. That policy was based on looking at education from the wrong end of the telescope. It was an example of a new Labour policy objective with lofty ambition that lacked clarity of outcome. Incidentally, it also deftly obscured the need for Labour to tackle the knotty problem of tuition fees, which was the real issue in higher education.
Ed Miliband, on the contrary, is attempting to put himself in the shoes of the large numbers of young people, parents and workers for whom university is not a feasible route but who aspire to achieve high-level technical skills that are of equal status to an academic education. In so doing, he is also clear about the desired policy outcome - for the country to have a world-class vocationally skilled workforce.
Miliband consciously chose a conference speech - his third since election as leader - to highlight the importance of vocational skills. He has since established a cross-departmental Shadow Ministerial-led Skills Task Force now working on the detailed implementation of policy and feeding in to the ‘Your Nation’ National Policy Forum Work & Business and Education & Children Policy Commissions.
This tells us a lot about the leader’s principles, priorities, and passions. Ed has moved the skills agenda centre stage, giving voice as well as heart, to many in the further education sector, who are, and will be the prime deliverers of a Labour government’s vocational education, skills, and training policy.
Previous Labour leaders have neglected this important sector of education, choosing instead to feed the media’s interest in schools and universities. And yet the FE sector is big business in Britain. There are over 420 Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges educating and training around 3 million people a year. 45% of all vocational qualifications are awarded via colleges compared with 6% awarded through employers and over 30% more 16 to 18-year-olds choose to study in colleges - 737,000 compared with 487,000 in all schools. Ethnic minority students make up 18% of learners in colleges compared with 12% of the general population.
It is encouraging that led by Ed himself, who has recently made visits to Reading and Sandwell Colleges, Shadow Ministers and their teams are now spending more time in and with FE colleges and work based training providers, and referencing their work more frequently in speeches, as Stephen Twigg did in his recent presentation to the Policy Exchange. This demonstrates that Labour’s Shadow Business and Education teams are genuinely committed to listening to and learning from staff, students, unions, employers and businesses - hopeful signs that Labour skills policy will be formulated and resourced with their needs in mind.
This is why it is important to take part in the work of the Skills Taskforce whose remit and key lines of enquiry can be found online at http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/agenda-2015/policy-review/skills-taskforce-1
The website also includes an email address firstname.lastname@example.org for stakeholders and others to use when submitting views and evidence to the Skills Taskforce.
Labour has to get it right on skills next time. Tony Blair came to power in 1997 determined to make education the hallmark of his government and much was achieved in the primary and secondary school fields. By concentrating on vocational skills and the giving attention to the forgotten 50%, Ed Miliband now has an opportunity to finish the job started by his predecessor - and all of us who care about skills need to support Labour to deliver this vision.
Article for Progress Online to contribute to their event ‘Going for Growth: How can Britain pay its way in the coming decade?’ to be held on Tuesday 25 February 2013.
Ann Limb is a Member of Shadow Ministerial Skills Task Force team and chair of its FE Reference Group. She is also Chair of Labour’s National Women’s Development Board. Ann is a former FE College Principal and Founder & Chair of the Helena Kennedy Foundation –the educational charity that supports students disadvantaged backgrounds to progress from FE into university and the workplace.