My heart sank when I read that Sir Tony Blair had waded into the education debate again calling for the scrapping of GCSEs and A-levels. I don’t disagree with his analysis. Many young people leave school ill-prepared for the exigencies of today’s fast paced and volatile world of work. Is yet another ‘new approach to educational reform’ the answer, and particularly now hard on the heels of an education and skills world still reeling from the pandemic?
It is not hard to imagine the systems meltdown – the collective chaos and seismic stress that would ensue by implementing new ideas posited by political pundits rather than experienced, evidence-based practitioners. Does the energy and resilience of students, parents, teachers, leaders, assessors, civil servants, unions, and employers alike need to be subjected to unnecessary upheaval? I think not – and here’s why.
Firstly, Tony Blair is out of touch. He fails to recognise the plethora of education and skills reforms that have been made during the long years his party has been in opposition. Ironically some of them, like academisation, built on the school reforms he himself made in office. The former prime minister has not kept up with his own former secretaries of state for education, David Blunkett, Estelle Morris, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, and Charles Clarke all of whom agree publicly with their former Conservative counterparts that the overriding policy reform needed now is a 10-year vision with strategic funding guarantees similar to the NHS (see FED).
Secondly, Tony Blair has lost his touch – his touch for tuning in to the Zeitgeist. He discounts, or disregards, the positive skills and post-16 educational improvements that have been introduced by successive Tory prime ministers since 2010.
Take David Cameron, who stole a march on Labour with a bold market intervention (yes, a Tory policy) of a compulsory training levy on employers thereby reinvigorating the value of apprenticeships. This was followed by Theresa May, who commissioned an independent panel to review post-18 education and funding. Led by Sir Philip Augar, it produced an almost universally acclaimed report that finally recognised the decade of systematic underfunding of further and adult education and work-based learning and the disastrous consequences of this for the economy and for communities.
And bang up to date, ‘get-Brexit-done-Boris’, to whom the lesser-known sobriquet ‘got-Augar-afloat’ might also be attributed, has with all political party endorsement (on the whole), got the recent skills act through parliament. This has paved the way for a fourth Tory PM since Tony Blair left office to reap the rewards of the current PM’s passion for and promotion of skills and the world of work – the cause now championed by one of his predecessors in Downing Street. Under the tutelage of a well-respected crossbench peer and academic, Professor Alison Wolf, seconded into number 10 to work with the Department of Education, the vast bulk of the Augar Report recommendations have now been understood, accepted, and are being implemented.
The lifetime learning entitlement (LLE) has been instigated, and there is increasing devolution of the adult education budget to a growing number of mayoral and other types of combined local authorities. All, whether Tory, Labour, or Lib Dem, relish the powers and financial control this enables, particularly in relation to the wider levelling-up agenda, and the opportunities to work with and meet the needs of local and regional employees and employers.
All this within the framework of LSIPs (do you know what these are Sir Tony?) – local skills improvement plans. Through LSIPs, now out of pilot phase and about to be driven forward, employer representative bodies (ERBs) are working with colleges and skills providers to ensure employers’ needs are met. These employers, working in a world increasingly shaped by new technologies, automation, and AI, as Tony Blair’s analysis highlights, are central to shaping the way forward on skills for individuals and communities. Through LSIPs and ERBs, colleges can ensure there is a skilled local and regional workforce in which high aspirations, high wages, and high productivity go hand in hand with the high skills of the Fourth Industrial Revolution of which Tony Blair speaks. This reform emphasises the place colleges and employers, working together, occupy at the heart of local community regeneration and growth – the place adult and further (lifelong) education has always been. Somehow, under Prime Minister Blair, Labour failed to recognise, champion, and fund this.
Finally, there is already out there the ‘new qualification’, you seek, Sir Tony. It’s called T Levels, and it sits alongside the A-levels you want to abolish. Think of T Levels as ‘Conservative speak’ for a way of looking at, and labelling, your International Baccalaureate (IB) proposal. T Levels are different from the IB, of course, in construct and content but not, I think, in intent. Granted, they are very new, and the jury is out but I love that T Levels have already entered the psyche and language of the educational world and the media. As with all the reforms to which I have drawn attention here, there is still much to develop with T Levels over the coming years – in conjunction with employers, assessors, regulators. teachers, students, and apprentices. However, it’s right we give them a proper chance to evolve as they sustain a central plank of post-16 education reform. The divisive cultural taboo on ‘technical’ is broken, the genie is out of the bottle, and like apprenticeships, parents and young people are now increasingly coming to realise that practical and technical skills (T Levels) that prepare for the world of work are as key to healthy lives and productive communities as is academic study (A-levels).
A decade ago in 2012, I wrote an article for Progress entitled ‘Has Labour finally got skills?’. At the time, I was, under Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party, a Member of the shadow ministerial skills task force and chair of its FE reference group. I firmly believed that his 2012 speech to the Labour Party conference was eye catching not just for its spontaneous and seemingly unscripted delivery but because in policy terms, it felt like a moment when Labour finally ‘got it’ in terms of skills and vocational education – for the many and not just the few. I hope the current Labour shadow education team do not give undue attention to their former leader’s latest salvo – because I fear it will not help the very education system those aspiring shadow ministers seek to lead.