Students are going to higher education in record numbers, with almost a quarter of a million 18-year-olds leaving to study at university in 2015. This is almost one in three of our young people.
But if you were to listen to the policy debate about education, you could be forgiven for believing that every 18-year-old is going to university. The debate seems to focus on those who take the academic route, at the expense of everyone else. We need to change the way we view and value education. That must start by understanding that if 31 per cent of young people are going to university, then 69 per cent are not.
Since becoming Shadow Education Secretary, I have made it clear that I want to see as much emphasis being placed on vocational education and apprenticeships as is currently placed on universities. One does not exclude the other.
I have already campaigned and challenged the government on higher education issues such as cutting maintenance grants, (which Labour would bring back), freezes to the student loan repayment threshold, and the Student Loans Company overcharging graduates by millions of pounds. I have also highlighted how the proportion of students from state schools going on to higher education has been falling rapidly since the Coalition trebled tuition fees.
But these are not the only education issues which matter. In particular, if we are serious about education as a pathway to improve social mobility and ensure that the next generation are able to get the jobs they need to make the most of their lives, we must look deeper than higher education. Because the fact is that students who are eligible for free school meals are half as likely as their more affluent peers to go on to university. And young people who don’t go on to university are disproportionately coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
That’s why we need to look seriously at the opportunities offered by vocational and further education. In my speech to Labour Party conference, I called out the snobbery towards vocational educational which exists too often amongst the great and the good.
As a country, we must stop looking down our noses at those who choose a vocational path rather than an academic route. I was never academic and I left school as a teenage mum without a single qualification to my name. I am not proud of that – but looking back, it was the inevitable consequence of my background and my circumstances.
That’s why I am so passionate about giving real opportunity to young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I was one of the lucky ones when, years after I left school, I was able to return to further education and was given a second chance in life. I was able to take advantage of the support a Sure Start centre offered to me as a young mum, to get the training I needed to work as a home carer. From then on, I was encouraged to go further by my union.
Even now, as an MP, the work I do is far more vocational than academic. Academic qualifications, although important, don’t prepare you as an MP to help people in your constituency, or take up their cases with the authorities. You bring your life experience to the job, how you build positive relationships with other people, how you learn to work effectively on behalf of other people.
Above all else, it is a vocation. And I am trying to show the importance of vocational education in my own office. I have employed my constituency office’s first modern apprentice, Chloe, and in the eight months she has worked in my team, she has developed enormously and become invaluable to my work. She has gained the confidence and resilience to answer difficult phone calls from constituents, help with casework and answer hundreds of emails with confidence and clarity. To me, she is the perfect example of how vocational education can help young people grow and develop.
Vocational education and modern apprenticeships can transform the lives of young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. By offering them quality, on-the-job training that will lead to work, and the opportunity to earn while they learn, we can give them a head start in the adult world.
The way that vocational education, and in particular apprenticeships, can improve the lives of our young people, simply underlines why the recent U-turn by the Tories on apprenticeships was so important. After planning to cut funding for apprenticeships, and in particular for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the government, trying to use the deafening noise of a Heathrow announcement as cover, announced that they would no longer go ahead.
Credit must go first and foremost to an effective, united Labour opposition on this issue, notably from my frontbench colleague Gordon Marsden, as well as the concentrated campaign by dozens of Labour backbenchers, led by David Lammy. But I am also glad that the Minister listened to the concerns raised by some on his own backbenches, the business community, and many others in the sector. I hope he will continue to listen in the future.
But we need to go much further. The fact that there are over 400,000 young people not in education, employment, or training (NEETs) shows conclusively that far too many young people are not getting the opportunities they need. Because it is not just the individual young people who are losing out when they don’t get the chance to gain the skills they need, or a job that is personally and financially rewarding. Ultimately, a lack of good, vocational education for young people is a loss to our society.
By equipping the next generation of young people with the jobs they will need in the economy of the future, we will help to address Britain’s poor rate of productivity, which languishes around the bottom of any rankings of our international competitors. High quality vocational education can play a vital role in helping to address these deep-seated, structural problems and improve our economic performance post-Brexit.
If we are really committed to improving social mobility, enhancing our economic productivity and building a country that works for everyone, no matter their background, then we need to get serious about vocational education.