New shadow ed sec admits NES plan didn't reach voters

Freddie Whittaker meets Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour’s new shadow education secretary

The lack of an “overarching message” from Labour on its flagship national education service (NES) was one of the reasons it lost the last general election, says the new shadow education secretary.

But Rebecca Long-Bailey says the “fantastic” policy will survive and be developed by Labour under Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership.

She has pledged to “flesh out the detail” in the “next few years”.

A flagship policy of Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s former leader, the service was an umbrella term for a free “cradle-to-grave” education that had no tuition fees. It also pledged to replace Ofsted.

But although elements of the policy were extensively covered in the media and seemed to reach voters, many felt the overall vision did not hit home.

“There are a number of reasons as to why we lost, we know that, but one of the reasons is that we didn’t have that overarching message that explained to people what the national education service was for and what a Labour government was for,” said Long-Bailey in an exclusive interview with FE Week’s sister paper Schools Week.

But the former party leadership candidate believes the NES was key policy “for a reason”, adding that that the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the “huge role” schools, colleges and training providers play in society.

“If we’re going to make sure that we don’t just see social mobility, the odd few climbing the ladder and doing very well for themselves, but everybody rising up and realising their potential, then we’ve got to have a cradle-to-grave national education service that means education is a right for all.”

Long-Bailey’s first task before she can flesh out Labour’s education policies is to hold the government to account for its coronavirus response.

She believes “clearer” communication is needed about plans to reopen schools and colleges, and warns of “a lot of concern”
among staff about a rushed return.

And in terms of training providers, she says the DfE’s response to support them financially has been inadequate – especially their latest announcement, that levy-funded apprenticeships will not be eligible for supplier relief.

“The Association of Employment and Learning Providers has raised the alarm about this and I understand that they’re seeking legal advice on the government’s action, because they believe that the grounds to exclude those providers isn’t justified.

“By being a levy provider, you would have a direct contract [with the ESFA] in any event through that system.

“So I think the government does need to address this very, very quickly because there are a number of training providers who now really are worried about not just what’s going to happen over the next few months, but they’re worried about whether they’re actually viable over the next week.”

Long-Bailey says training providers are going to be “essential in our economic recovery”, so it’s an “incredibly worrying” time for them.