In December 2018, the Labour life peer Andrew Adonis told the House of Lords that, when it comes to education, the state has failed to live up to the expectations of “wise” parents. Alongside citizen engagement, the former Minister for Schools and author of the 2012 treatise Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools, highlighted apprenticeships – for which he has long banged the drum – as a seriously overlooked area.
“What the wise parent would wish for their child is to have equality of opportunity whether they go on to university or to a non-university course,” he argued. “We in this house and beyond have been going on about this issue now for at least a generation, but the problem is there is not equality of opportunity at the moment.”
Today, the ardent Remainer is perhaps better known for his social media soapboxing on leaving the European Union than for his time as New Labour’s education guru. But the 56-year-old is still a champion of alternatives to university education, and he still believes that a focus on education, apprenticeships and skills is “integral” for “rebalancing” the United Kingdom’s economy. If done well, Adonis says at his Milbank offices a few days after December’s General Election, education “of all kinds” can serve as a “catalyst” for social mobility. If done badly it achieves “the exact opposite”.
The Conservatives’ apprenticeship levy – a 0.5 per cent tax on UK employers with an annual wage bill of more than £3m to fund new apprenticeships – was launched in April 2017. There were 375,800 new apprenticeship starts for the 2017/18 academic year, according to official government data, compared with 494,900 in 2016/17, and 509,400 in 2015/16 – a decline of 24.1 and 26.2 per cent respectively. Adonis stops short of saying that the levy has failed, but thinks that the policy could do with a rethink. “I think the levy could stand to be more flexible and include things like retraining as well. It doesn’t have to be focused on school leavers; you can have management apprenticeships too.” The current minimum wage for an apprentice in the UK is £3.70 per hour – less than half of the national living wage for someone aged 25 or older. Adonis, who has two children currently at university, agrees that any hope of packaging apprenticeships as a “credible alternative” hinges on them being paid “properly”. He says: “There is no appeal in earning while learning if what you are earning is very little.”
There was a belief among policymakers, Adonis says, that the lower rate of pay for apprenticeships may actually encourage the provision of more. “That belief, evidently, has not manifested itself. And the lower rate of pay [for many apprentice-level jobs] certainly affects the public’s perception of them.”
In 2013, Adonis led an independent review of the UK’s economy for Policy Network, a think tank, in which he argued that there is an “imperative for a major expansion” of highquality apprenticeships, namely those “accredited by professional bodies”. A mistake has been made, he reflects, in viewing university courses and apprenticeships as “necessarily opposite”. Rather, he suggests, “aspects” of each can be applied to the other.
Increasingly university graduates are being criticised for lacking soft skills or industrial awareness upon entering the workforce. More “employer involvement” in designing and setting the standards for degrees, according to Adonis, could go some way towards squaring this circle. “It should be a partnership. Employers know what they want from their graduate candidates, so it makes sense for them to be able to collaborate with schools, colleges or universities on this. This sort of thing already happens in Germany.”
In 1999, the Labour government set a target of 50 per cent of young people attending university, which was, according to the Department for Education’s official figures, reached in the 2017/18 academic year. But, in 2020 there is an excess of graduates without a job who are burdened with thousands of pounds’ worth of student debt.
“When we introduced tuition fees, the debt level wasn’t excessive,” says Adonis, who was one of the chief architects behind Labour’s policy. “It was being paid back through a tax system, linked to your income. Philosophically, that was more defensible and more manageable [than the trebled rate introduced by the Coalition government of 2010].”
But he doesn’t think the answer is to scrap fees entirely, as proposed by Labour’s most recent election manifesto. “There is no point in pretending that you can have a first-class higher education system without sharing some of the cost with the graduates. I think the right thing to do would be to return to the pre-2010 regime, which would mean fees of between £3,000 and £4,000 a year, rather than £9,000 or £12,000. That is a lot more affordable for a start and far less culturally off-putting for working-class students.”
The rising cost of qualifications together with the narrative about the value of university has, Adonis believes, created an over-reliance on the graduate talent pool. “We have a situation now where there are more graduates than there are jobs.” And although he would, “for the sake of learning as an embedded feature of our society”, like to see all people attend university “at some stage in their life”, Adonis says, the “lack of options” on offer to school leavers is neither sustainable nor desirable.
Learning “at all levels”, he suggests, should be more creative. “When I did my finals at university in the 1980s, every single paper was a written threehour exam. And when I was doing my A-Levels a few years before, every paper bar one, my French oral, was a written exam. Fast-forward to now and, in the main, we are still assessing people through written exams. The world of work is constantly changing… yet the way we teach students has barely changed in 30 years.”
The shift away from coursework, during school years, is, according to Adonis, “one of the stranger points of consensus” among successive education ministers, “especially as more university courses are built on independent research and projects undertaken over an extended period of time.” Coursework, which requires students to get out of the classroom and actively do some research, is a “helpful process in preparing them for further study and for many jobs.”
Soft skills – specifically public speaking and building interpersonal relationships, as well as political and financial awareness – should be thought about “earlier on” in the education pipeline, he says. “This is something we should be working on while people are still at school. Employers value skills just as much as qualifications.”
Adonis is “hugely in favour” of extracurricular activities as a way of developing skills and feels that this is one area in which state schools should be emulating private schools. “I don’t like the social elitism that accompanies many aspects of private schools,” he admits, “but we do need more of the DNA that makes up private schools to be shifted into the state sector, for example debating societies, drama, and sport.” His thinking on this has drawn criticism in some quarters. In her review of his 2012 book, for instance, Melissa Benn dismissed the approach as “ersatz elitism” and “phoney blazered privilege for all”. Adonis is adamant, however, that investing in activities “alongside” the curriculum will help students to “broaden their thinking and become more confident.”
Good policies cost money and Adonis “obviously” supports investing more in the UK’s education system. But, following the “disaster” of Labour’s election result in December, he reiterates that going forward, the party can’t “simply throw figures” into the public domain and expect them to be voted for on goodwill alone. “It is all well and good saying you’re going to pump millions into schools – but what exactly are those millions being spent on?”
And despite his disappointment over Brexit, Adonis does not dismiss its ability to act as a shot in the arm for UK training and education. “That may be one happy side effect,” he admits. “For the UK to thrive it needs an education system that is diverse and well-funded. And all courses and apprenticeships need to be thought about with the world of work, and how it is changing, in mind.”