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.