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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era