Despite New Labour’s investment in education, and the gains made by the London Challenge, the achievement gap remains. A flurry of calls for new measures from Nick Clegg and Tristram Hunt is welcome, but they are silent on the central issue – the vital need to treat education as infrastructure.
The education gap closed under New Labour, as recent LSE research has shown, especially in the capital where the London Challenge boosted GCE performance to the top of the national league table. But elsewhere, there are still too many areas and schools where the qualification levels of youngsters not bound for university are mediocre. As the Public Accounts Committee found, there are still too many NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) and too many lost to the education system.
A divide opens up between the children from better off and poorer families even before they start school. Tristram Hunt and others are right to call for a properly funded early years system to nip this divide in the bud. But what of the almost 50% of young people who are not on the A level path to higher education and each year instead move into further education, some as young as 14?
The government – like those before it – intones the vital importance of skills for national competitiveness and boasts its investment in apprenticeships. The truth is that the supply of high quality apprenticeships for under 25s is still miniscule – just 6% of 16 year olds according to Ofsted– while no sector of education has taken a bigger hit from George Osborne than further education.
There was a time when our further education and art colleges were globally admired and copied but now they face a grim future. Their budget has been cut again, and they have largely lost control of their funding. A large proportion goes directly to employers to spend on apprenticeships, and in the city–regions millions will be devolved to local councils and enterprise partnerships. If we are serious about skills, about high quality vocational education, about maintaining our strength in aerospace and industrial design, then we have to re-invest in further and vocational education. This is a real challenge for Labour that finds no difficulty in making the case for spending more on flood defences, railways and other infrastructure but draws the line at education.
But what of the argument that denominating increased spending on education as infrastructure risks a damaging rise in the public debt? Dani Rodrik – Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at the Harvard Kennedy School – reviews the impressive impact of public investment on growth in Ethiopia and Bolivia arguing:
Public investment is different from other types of official outlays, such as expenditures on public-sector wages or social transfers. Public investment serves to accumulate assets, rather than consume them. So long as the return on those assets exceeds the cost of funds, public investment in fact strengthens the government’s balance sheet.
Of course, spending more by itself is rarely the answer to any problem, and so it is here. Without a measure of local planning and democratic accountability, it will be hard to ensure that additional resources generate real improvements. The problem is that the accumulated impact of the education reforms of the last 25 years is local education fragmentation. Local councils have lost power and resources to schools and colleges and now nobody is responsible for overseeing local education performance. Locality scores, as the Headteachers’ Roundtable has recommended, could create a sense of shared responsibility but more needs to be done to build an integrated system, so crucial to the young people who currently fall through the net or simply fail to make progress, moving from one ill-judged course to another, as Alison Wolf noted in her report on vocational education.
Compare this state of affairs with the emerging cross-party approach to the NHS, where everyone agrees on the need for better coordination and an integrated health and social care service. And where we take for granted that once a pregnancy is registered, GPs, district nurses and hospitals will work together to ensure a safe and healthy birth for mother and child.
Now that young people are legally required to be in full time education or training until they are 18, this is the kind of model we need for a national education service, funded as if we really did believe in the future.