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.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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