We failed our own people by degrees, says Ken

London's mayor tells MPs that more needs to be done to help teenagers take vocational courses

Left-wingers have been mistaken in believing that the expansion of universities would reduce the class divide, Ken Livingstone admitted this week.

Mr Livingstone, whose connection with education goes back to his time as leader of the Greater London Council, abolished in 1986, told MPs there had been a historic lack of emphasis on skills in favour of academic learning.

The Mayor of London said he supports the expansion of universties but said Labour politicians had let down working-class people who needed skills training in order to stay in employment.

Speaking to MPs on the Commons' education select committee on Tuesday, he said: "On our side of the political divide, we mixed up breaking the class system down with being much more focused on education.

"The idea that the vast majority of people can effectively get a university education was probably a mistake.

"I think there's a problem which comes from the post-war consensus. There was the idea that most people should get a university education. We neglected the vocational route. You are not a failure because you have a qualification short of a degree."

He said it has been assumed you could take "working-class boys from Brixton and, if we pummelled them enough, they would end up adopting an academic approach to life".

Meanwhile, he said, London had failed to provide vocational training opportunities to help people stay in work during the decline of manual labour.

Higher education in Britain expanded massively from the 1960s, with new universities and polytechnics opening in the years that followed.

Ministers have set a target for getting 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education - including university - by 2010.

Mr Livingstone also said to the committee that he has told the Government that it was wrong to end automatic free English courses for speakers of other languages.

The committee was questioning him about his role as chairman of the new London skills board, which brings him into partnership with the Learning and Skills Council in the strategic planning of post-19 education.

Other members of the board are expected to be drawn primarily from the world of business.

The Greater London Authority and the London Development Agency - both of which are under his control as mayor - have argued that London's skills training requirements are different from those in the rest of the country, where his advisers tell him there needs to be more work at level 4 (first-year degree equivalent).

While the LSC will continue as the funding body in London, the strategy will be set by Mr Livingstone's board. David Hughes, its London regional director, believes Mr Livingstone's persona and the influence of the office of mayor will give a higher profile to vocational training.

The committee heard that Mr Livingstone wants to see more effective intervention to help jobless people as well as more training opportunities.

He said: "A third of a million people have never worked.

All the people that are easy to get back to work we have reached with government programmes over the last decade.

"The person handing over their benefits should be the person arranging a programme to get them back to work."

He also wants to see more progress made in involving small and medium-sized business. These are less likely than multinationals to make large-scale redundancies or move labour overseas, but are often overlooked when it comes to meeting the training needs of industry, he argued.

Ken's love for the LSc, FErret 2

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