It’s not often that speakers at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference are greeted with excited whooping. But then, it’s not often that college leaders are addressed by as high-profile a figure as Jeremy Corbyn. Last week’s conference marked the first occasion that a leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition had attended the highest-profile event in the FE calendar.
While most ministers and government officials appear to have little capacity to deal with much other than Brexit at the moment, it appears that education is – in the Labour Party at least – becoming ever more prominent.
And this issue appears to have united the new breed of Corybnites leading Labour with the man who masterminded the rise of New Labour, which they are at pains to disassociate themselves from.
Having led the campaign culminating in Labour’s historic general election win in 1997, Alastair Campbell spent the next six years working at the heart of the Tony Blair government – more often than not described as Blair’s spin doctor, and carving out a formidable reputation for his often combative approach to relations with the Conservative-leaning newspapers.
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 tells Tes that the subjects of Brexit and further education are inextricably linked.
Education, he says, “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 adds. “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’.”
Esol funding ‘vital’
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.
Speaking after his speech, Corbyn is quick to praise Tes’ recent coverage of funding pressures facing the provision of English for speakers of other languages (Esol) (“A little more conversation?”, 10 November).
“Esol funding was cut,” he continues. “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.”
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 ambiton 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.”
A key part of this is the pledge that lifelong learning will be offered free of charge.
This, he continued, “will allow anybody to improve their skills or retrain entirely at any point in their lives.”
Much of this training, of course, would be delivered through colleges. On stage, Corbyn bemoaned the fact that incorporated colleges are “often far too separate” from local authorities and their communities – although he quickly insisted that he was “not trying to destroy the independence that’s there”.
So would Labour alter the incorporated status of colleges that dates back to 1993? Corbyn acknowledges that they are, as a result, independent bodies.
“Nevertheless,” he continues, “they receive a huge amount of public funding in one form or the other. I want them to be more involved with local education authorities, as well as with local businesses and employers.
“So we’re looking for a model that achieves a greater level of community involvement in them. We haven’t fixed on a model yet. Angela Rayner and myself will be meeting a number of people to work this out, but those are the principles we are working behind.”
One area where Corbyn has no intention of making major changes is the introduction of T levels. “We support the high-level skills agenda. It’s clearly important, but also what no public sector worker wants, be it [in] health or education, is unnecessary and relentless reorganisation. So if they have the knowledge that we want to stick with that fundamental agenda within a National Education Service, with better funding and support for students, I think that gives some stability to the sector.”
‘Seize the opportunity’
The day after Corbyn was greeted with a largely enthusiastic response at the AoC conference – due, in no small part, to the promise of additional funding for colleges – Campbell is preparing for his speech in a side room at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre. “I read his speech on the way up,” Campbell says. So what was his verdict?
He pauses. “I think he says a lot of the right things but … they keep saying everything’s costed, but there were a lot of spending commitments in that speech yesterday. It wasn’t really clear to me. I think he’s still at that stage of saying a lot of things that he wants to do without necessarily saying how you do them. Talking to people here, he seems to have gone down well.”
On the concept of the NES, Campbell is unsure. “I need to be clear – they need to be clear – what it actually means in practice,” he says. “I don’t want to keep harking back [to the New Labour era], but we did a lot of really detailed policy work in opposition. We were ready to run with it.
“When you go through that speech, there was so much in it. If you delivered all that, great: a cradle-to-grave education service; giving colleges all the resources they need. Fine. But what does that actually mean?
“[Former Liberal Democrat leader] Nick Clegg said that [Corbyn] got a lot of abuse and very little scrutiny [in the general election campaign]. I think that the next election will be different, because nobody in the last election thought he would win. He didn’t win. But next time, people think he might win. Therefore, the scrutiny goes to a completely different level.”
For the FE sector, however, Campbell believes that brighter signs are emerging. “I think Brexit is a total disaster on every level, but for this sector, I think they must see it as an opportunity. Their status and resourcing and role in the community are very important now, more than they were – and they should seize that.”
But the man regarded as the classic exponent of the dark arts of political spin – who inspired the formidable Malcolm Tucker in comedy The Thick of It – has some words of advice for the FE sector about how it presents itself.
“The challenge it’s always had – but I think it’s a challenge it should meet better than it is [doing] – is that the debate is always focused on schools and universities.
“You can sort of see why: schools affect everybody, and universities are very long established; people understand they’re important to the economy, there are a lot of big names attached to the universities. I think the FE sector has always been squeezed between that. What you need to break out, when you’re squeezed, is a very clear, definitive message that’s out there all the time: ‘This is what we do, this is why it’s important and this is why you should be interested.’ But that takes a lot of effort.”
But Brexit, and the sharpened focus it has brought on producing the next generation of skilled workers for the UK, could allow FE the chance to elbow its way into the mainstream, Campbell believes.
“I think to seize that opportunity, you have to be louder and prouder about what it is that you do. I think, far too often, you have certainly felt and you have communicated a sense of being somewhat squeezed between schools over here, universities over here. Actually I think, with Brexit, there is an opportunity for you to state more clearly, more loudly, more proudly what you are, what you do and why you are fundamental to Britain’s success if Brexit goes ahead.”