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6 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn is proposing a National Education Service – would it work?

A closer look at the Labour leadership candidate's idea about a “lifelong learning service” that runs “from cradle to grave”.

By Helen Thomas

Jeremy Corbyn has told us that Britain needs a National Education Service. As part of his Labour leadership campaign, the 66-year-old envisages a unified education body which will be, “every bit as vital and as free at the point of use as our NHS”.

In his article on LabourList, Corbyn aligns himself with Labour leaders of the past. He calls Harold Wilson’s creation of the Open University in 1969, “one of the most under-rated achievements of Labour in government”, before quoting Tony Blair in his call for “education, education, education”.

Corbyn’s proposal for a “lifelong learning service” that runs “from cradle to grave,” could be exactly what’s needed to answer the skills shortage at a time of slashing funds for vocational training. The Adult Skills Budget, which covers Further Education courses for those 19-years-old and over, has been cut by 40 per cent since 2010, and is due to reduce further between 2015 and 2016. Earlier this year, the Association of Colleges predicted that if cuts continued at the same rate, FE courses could be completely eradicated by 2020.

But the Tories couldn’t just go around making those cuts without people kicking up a fuss, could they? I mean, just imagine if he announced that primary schools were going to receive 40% less funding. There’d be riots! Unfortunately, 45-year-old women who get made redundant and want to re-train so they can support themselves and their families (and add more fuel to the economy), are not so well protected under austerity cuts.

The slow erosion of FE has been justified by the explosion of apprenticeship schemes, one of the coalition’s biggest boasts of their time in government. The number of apprenticeships has sky rocketed from 279,900 in 2009-10 to 440,000 in 2013-14.

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However, for those between the ages of 16 and 18, or 19-year-old apprentices in their first year, the wage is a paltry £2.73 an hour. Those over the age of 19 can receive the National Minimum Wage – the grand sum of £6.50 an hour. But in Corbytopia, colleges will work in partnership with employers to mutually accredit apprenticeships and vocational courses that teach transferable skills.

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With a 2 per cent increase in corporation tax, Corbyn wants to whip up a system that generates higher tax revenues out of a more skilled workforce and productivity gains. And if that wasn’t enough to convince the Daily Mail reader inside you, Corbyn wants to provide welfare claimants with a credible learning alternative, as opposed to, “the carousel of workfare placements, sanctions and despair”.

Where his strategy is less clear is whether this tax increase would mean a 2 per cent jump from the current rate of 20 per cent, or from George Osborne’s new 18 per cent rate, due to be implemented by 2020. Corporations simply can’t jump from a decrease to an increase in such a short space of time, and you can bet your bottom dollar that 2 per cent won’t cover the cost of Corbytopia. The figure feels arbitrarily thrown in to legitimise the proposal, and, like much of the rest of the NES plan, seems vague and little understood. 

Rosamund McNeil, Head of Education at the National Union of Teachers (NUT, which is not affiliated with Labour), told me that the potential for the NES to be successful and offer the best outcomes for learners and teachers would be entirely dependent on how it would function:

It’s quite unclear to see the detail of what exactly is being proposed at this time. Whether or not it got locked up in bureaucracy would be dependent on whether it would be a body, a non-governmental body, or an agency, or if it could be a vision like Every Child Matters . . . you need stability in education policy, and you need long term planning, rather than short term political gimmicks.

Mark Leach, editor of policy and higher education website Wonkhe commented on the financial practicalities of pooling education budgets:

In a National Education Service, universities would lose their autonomy – The majority of university funding does not come from the state and therefore the state’s not responsible for planning the delivery of results (and they shouldn’t be). If you changed that you’d see an erosion of UK university standards and standing in society across the world. Without the autonomy that you have across the education system, you’d put funding at risk. The government has to prioritise Primary and Secondary Education and so HE will suffer.

Then there’s FE, which has not been treated well by a succession of different governments. They would be very concerned about having to fight for resources, when you’ve historically got much better funded, better connected, deeper rooted, more complicated bodies like universities competing for funding.

But ultimately, in a hypothetical world where the NES comes to fruition, it could offer stability and collective nationwide support for the public service that has the biggest effect on class mobility, poverty rates, and equality.

Imagine a world where “Free Education” receives patriotic applause when it appears in flashing lights at the Olympic opening ceremony. McNeil was keen to point out that the NUT, “always talk about education as a service. That can be a very dry word that people may not welcome, but when we talk about the NHS people feel very proud and motivated to defend it. You need democratic links for schools to feel like a community asset to which people are connected”.

The NES, if it were economically and practically credible, would get my support. Unfortunately, it’s up to a back bench idealist to make it happen.