While it might seem that many ministers and government officials have little capacity to deal with much other than Brexit at the moment, education is – in the Labour Party at least – becoming ever more prominent.
At the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham earlier this month, former Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn both argued for the importance of education. The issue appears to have united the new breed of Corybnites currently leading Labour with the man who masterminded the rise of New Labour, which they are at pains to disassociate themselves from.
Campbell’s passionate opposition to Brexit has led to him returning to greater prominence in political debate since last June, including being appointed editor-at-large of the pro-EU newspaper The New European. Ahead of taking to the conference stage that Corbyn had occupied the day before, he told Tes that the subjects of Brexit and further education are inextricably linked.
Education, he said, “ought to be the key for every election”. “But there was only really 1997 and 2010 where education was central to the election campaign,” he added. “If politics is the language of priorities, the problem we’ve got is there is only one priority for this government now: it’s Brexit. We were ‘education, education, education’; they’re ‘Brexit, Brexit, Brexit’.”
For Corbyn, FE is certainly very much on the Labour Party’s radar. Its general election manifesto, published in the spring, was packed with mentions of the sector, and Corbyn made one of the party’s main election speeches on education, in partnership with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, at Leeds City College. The leader would be keen to return to next year’s AoC conference – if invited back – he told delegates.
Esol funding ‘vital’
“Esol funding was cut,” he said. “Some local authorities and colleges manage to provide a bit of free Esol; a lot of voluntary sector organisations do their best to provide it.
“But what a waste of talent, what a waste of opportunity by not providing Esol. We’ve got refugees that have come to this country with huge ambitions and a huge contribution to make to our society. If they can’t get past the basic need of being able to communicate in English in order to develop education skills, jobs or anything else, then clearly they are not going to make that contribution.
“I represent a very mixed community in inner London, and I see the value of Esol all the time. And so funding Esol [offers] a huge return for a very small investment."
So, if elected, would a Corbyn government increase Esol funding? “You’d certainly get it from a Labour government. I hope this Tory government will do it as well, because people need to communicate. Basic skills are lost," Mr Corbyn said.
Esol, Corbyn stated in his speech to the conference, would be brought into the party’s proposed National Education Service (NES).
Details as to how exactly this service will operate and be funded remain thin on the ground. But Corbyn’s speech made clear his ambition that the NES becomes to education what the NHS is for health.
“Just as Nye Bevan and the Attlee government created the National Health Service in the aftermath of World War Two, the next Labour government will create a National Education Service in England, offering cradle-to-grave education that is free at the point of use,” he told the conference.
“It will be based on the recognition that education is a universal benefit for the whole of society, as well as the individual. It will be a realisation of the fact that every child and adult matters, and that all areas of skill and learning deserve equal recognition.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 24 November edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents.