Finally, it seems that the Government has woken up to the fact that this country’s future is dependent on the skills-level of its workforce. In response to the Augar review on the future of education, they have signalled a commitment to increasing funds for further education, in a bid to create a parity of esteem with higher education.
As I addressed the annual City Lit Tutor Conference earlier this month, I was overwhelmed by the amount of talent, passion and diligence in the room. This experience reaffirmed for me that, in terms of investing in further education, we should have been doing this all along.
It has been quite easy to buy into the dream that the ultimate indicator of social mobility is university participation. Equipping more people to access higher education would level the playing field, we were told. Unfortunately, however, it’s become clear that Higher Education would not be the panacea to inequality of opportunity as we had once hoped.
At least not in isolation. Part of the reason for this is that equality of opportunity is often used to legitimise a system that fast-tracks a selected, lucky, talented few into the elite. This is not good enough. We need to invest in whole communities so that one’s person success can improve the lives of others. That means increasing access to skills and subjects that give everybody to create a career for themselves.
I have first-hand experience of the power of education to transform society in this way. My own mother studied nursing at night school whilst single-handedly raising five children. Watching her acquire new skills between shifts is precisely what made me and my siblings believe in ourselves. But it also made me believe in the importance of a flexible education system that supports hard-working people, often with caregiving commitments.
Colleges like City Lit build on the boundless talent and ambition of working people. It empowers people to take advantage of opportunities available in their own communities. Or, rather, it empowers people to observe for themselves what their community needs and present their own creative solutions.
That’s why we must increase our investment in further education. A lack of agency, voice and power is the product of a systemic lack of opportunity, engendered by inflexible and uncompassionate socio-economic structures. Large sections of our society who feel left behind are forced to swallow the same rhetoric on opportunity, the same opportunity that they have been denied their whole lives.
It’s no surprise that populism often becomes alluring; an attractive alternative to being condescended by liberal elites who profess to have their best interest at heart. Colleges help provide the skills that not everybody has had a chance to learn. They provide the kind of tailored education that not everybody has had a chance to access.
Ultimately, and bluntly, it makes basic economic sense to invest heavily in further education at this time. The UK needs to respond to ever-changing skills requirements in an evolving world. This is particularly prevalent in light of potential post-Brexit controls on immigration. Industries such as health and social care, which are already facing severe skills shortages, will be starved of workers which are desperately needed in a productive economy. A culture of learning for life in the UK is vital if we are to remain world-leading innovators in all sectors.
I still have my mother’s City & Guilds certificate. It represents what can be achieved when people are given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham, and a City Lit fellow