Miliband's education plan for "the forgotten 50 per cent"

Labour leader promises new vocational qualification and implicitly contrasts his schooling with Cameron's.

Education is one subject we've heard little from Ed Miliband on since he became Labour leader, with his party allowing Michael Gove to define the terms of debate. But that will change today as Miliband uses his conference speech to outline his plan to meet the needs of those he calls "the forgotten 50 per cent". The Labour leader will pledge to introduce a new vocational qualification - the Technical Baccalaureate - for those 14-18 year olds who do not intend to go to university, contrasting this with the Tories' focus on a "narrow elite". As a condition of the "Tech Bacc", all young people will be required to study English and Maths until 18. Miliband will say:

For years and years, our party has focused on those young people who go to university. And that matters. But it’s time now to focus on those who don’t go to university. The young people who are too often the forgotten 50 per cent. We cannot succeed if we can have an education system which only works for half the country.

In the 21st century everyone should be doing some form of education up to 18, not 16. That gives us the chance and the obligation to develop a new system from 14 to 18, in particular, for vocational qualifications. I want a curriculum that is rigorous and relevant with English and Maths up to 18, not 16, culminating in a new technical baccalaureate at 18 based on gold standard qualifications.

I want ours to be a country where kids aspire not just to go to Oxford and Cambridge but to excellent technical colleges and elite vocational institutions. We need to do what we haven’t done in decades: build a culture in our country where vocational qualifications are not seen as second class certificates but for what they can be - a real route on and up to quality apprenticeships and jobs.

In addition, he will vow to build a new system of apprenticeships for young people to go into after they are awarded the Tech Bacc at 18. This will involve giving businesses control of the £1bn budget of the Skills Agency, introducing a new "Fast Track" for apprentices, similar to that already in place for graduate civil servants, and making it a requirement for all large firms with government contracts to provide apprenticeships. The plan is an impressive riposte to those who have criticised the lack of policy detail from Labour and who have despaired at the party's failure to offer a rival vision to Gove's. Of the Education Secretary, he will say:

He has got contempt for vocational qualifications.  He even got rid of those like the engineering diploma that had the support of business. And he has nothing to say about education beyond 16.  He is stuck in the past, offering no vision for the 21st century.

There is a choice of two futures for education. The Tory plan for an education system designed for a narrower and narrower elite. Or our plan.

More contentiously, Miliband will also implicitly contrast his comprehensive school background with David Cameron's Eton education. Referring to his schooling at Haverstock in north London, he will say:

I went to my local school with people from all backgrounds. I still remember the motivation, the inspiration from some amazing teaching. It was a tough school, but one with order, because of the scariest headmistress you can imagine, Mrs Jenkins. My school taught us a lot more than just how to pass exams: it taught people how to get on with each other, whoever they are and wherever they were from. I will always be grateful, because I know I would not be standing here today as leader of the Labour Party without my comprehensive school education.

In response, we can expect the right to accuse Miliband of adopting a "class war" strategy, while others will observe that his intellectual upbringing, followed by spells at Oxford, Harvard, the Treasury and in the cabinet, was hardly typical of the ordinary voter. But with one poll recently showing that a significant number of voters believed he was educated at Eton, Miliband's desire to highlight his more conventional schooling is understandable. The Tories' political ineptness, from the abolition of the 50p tax rate to Andrew Mitchell's haughty disregard for the police, also means that such a strategy is no longer as risky as it once was. Indeed, it feels entirely appropriate.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband speaks at his party's annual conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.