Improving Education Standards

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:46 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 2:46 pm, 29th November 2018

No, I will not, I am afraid, because I am very short of time. If standards are rising for the cohorts that the Government have talked about, some of that is significantly down to the achievement of the Labour Government before 2010, not to a succession of post-2010 Tory-led Governments that have savaged Sure Starts, while undermining their funding and purpose at every turn. They have done the same with further education colleges.

The financial position of the colleges over the past 10 years, as the Association of Colleges tells us, is that they have had to deal with an average funding cut of 30%, while costs have increased dramatically. Funding for students aged 16 to 18 has been cut by 8% in real terms since 2010. It is entirely right that the chief inspector of Ofsted, writing to the Public Accounts Committee, said the other week:

“My strong view is that the government should use the forthcoming spending review to increase the base rate for 16 to 18 funding.”

Cash has led directly to falling standards in FE.

As we know, the position is similar in other areas. Funding for sixth-form colleges, for example, was subject to deep cuts in 2011 and 2013, and the national funding rate for 16 to 17-year-olds remains frozen at £4,000. I have seen these problems in my own area. The fantastic Blackpool Sixth Form College, which has done brilliant work in the 20-odd years for which I have been the local MP, has also felt the chill wind of the Government’s deliberate policies on austerity. It has had to cut Business and Technology Education Council courses, and wonders, rather sceptically, about T-levels. At the same time, however, it has managed to maintain variety, and outstanding classical civilisation courses are delivered by an outstanding teacher, Peter Wright.

The same applies to higher education. Universities UK says in a briefing that it sent to me for this debate that it estimates from the media reports of the Government’s review that the cut in tuition fees would lead, without replacement, to “significant cuts in universities”. However, this is not just about cuts, but about the other moves that are being suggested. There are concerns about varying fee levels. The Chancellor seems keen to introduce STEM fees, which increase the disincentive for many disadvantaged students, ignoring the fact that many arts and humanities degrees, especially the creative ones, are expensive because of the techniques and equipment required.

The Government have been very negligent in relation to English as a second language, which has not been mentioned much this afternoon. We need ESOL because there are established black and minority ethnic communities in the UK who need it, EU citizens who have come here and who need it and refugees who need it. The Government have talked the talk, but they have not walked the walk. They have not put the funds behind the Casey review, and that is one of the biggest issues that we have.

While all this is going on, we are waiting for details of the Government’s shared prosperity fund, which is supposed to come to the rescue of further and adult education, among other services, following the withdrawal of funds from the European social fund and the European regional development fund. However, there is no sign of it. All that we have are two sentences, one in the Conservative party manifesto and the other in a Tory party conference speech.

Let me touch briefly on adult education, about which I feel very strongly because I taught as a part-time course tutor for the Open University for 20 years. There has been a huge decline in the number of adults accessing education over the past decade and in the number of adults aged 21 and over can access higher education. That is affecting the Open University, Birkbeck and the Workers Educational Association, and, sadly, many higher education institutions have closed, including the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Yet we know that we will need the skills of older people—and, indeed, their life chances—post Brexit, given the economic challenges and the fourth industrial revolution.

These warnings are not new—they featured in Sandy Leach’s review in 2008—but they have been made all the more urgent by the Government’s abject failure to help existing workforces to upskill and retrain. The situation demands money, a strategy and a longitudinal vision comparable to that of David Blunkett’s “The Learning Age”. For all their rhetoric and modest initiatives, the Government do not have any of that. We are thinking towards the 2030s with our planned national education service.

I have said on a number of occasions that the worlds of higher and further education—with online and digital lifelong learning, which requires more enabling skills as well as rapidly acquired ones—are converging faster than people in Whitehall expect. That is why we will establish a lifelong learning commission to meet those challenges. That new world will come, but the crucial question is this: will we in the UK be leaders in that process, or the mere recipients of technologies and systems evolved in north America or south-east Asia? We owe it to all our generations, from seven to 70, to rise to that challenge, but unfortunately the Government are not doing that at the moment.