Labour – past, present and future:

Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen (in the next edition of Post-16 Educator)

Labour’s pedagogic project

Like other social democratic parties, Labour was established in opposition to revolutionary communist parties. Backed by the trades unions seeking a better deal for their members, it sought to reform society in the interests of working people through governments that socialised the means of production and exchange to gradually and legally expropriate the employing class.

This Parliamentary Socialism was neither revolutionary nor necessarily socialist since it did not give workers control. Instead, it relied upon an alliance across the then-main division of knowledge and labour in the employed population by which middle-class professionals administered the expanding welfare state introduced after 1945 on behalf of the industrial manually working class. The administration of state education, for instance, was largely delegated to Local Education Authorities and the content of the curriculum and its delivery left to teachers.

For nearly 30 years after 1945, the reconstruction of the economy, using Keynesian demand management and subsidised by the remnants of Empire, enabled virtually full employment with progressive taxation to finance the introduction of the Welfare State. With economic growth the expansion of white-collar, managerial and professional employment allowed limited absolute upward social mobility from the largely skilled sections of the traditional manual working class; first through the grammar schools introduced in 1944 and then the comprehensives from 1965, augmented by expanded further, higher and adult education.

Comprehensive reform was structural rather than curricular, leaving the new schools in academic competition with remaining grammars and private schools, the latter linked by the exam boards to the antique universities. Academic education remained dominant as successive governments failed to establish technical training comparable with other European countries, notably Germany. Compared to its competitors, Britain’s apprenticeship system, though extensive, remained both ad hoc and inferior.

Education assumed a new significance for Labour at the end of the long boom. James Callaghan’s 1976 ‘Ruskin Speech’ called for greater accountability and more emphasis on ‘vocational skills’. Meanwhile youth training schemes were hastily cobbled together to mop up rising youth unemployment – the school-leaving age already raised to 16 in 1972/3. Yet, further and then higher education continued to expand with Labour’s 1965-92 polytechnic experiment doubling the number of HE students.

Young women particularly progressed from school and college to gain higher qualifications, whilst many young men joined a resurrected reserve army of the permanently unemployed. This reflected further erosion of the manual-mental divide amongst employees as new technology was applied to increasingly automate and deskill industry, at the same time generalising office and service work.

Simultaneously, as nationalised industries were privatised and state spending on services rolled back by the Thatcher government, a New-Market State was improvised in which responsibility for delivery contracts out whilst power contracts to the centre. This was also a new form of the mixed economy now indiscriminately mingling the previously distinct and mutually sustaining public and private sectors of post-war corporatism. This will not easily be reversed since control over the national economy has been ceded to global capital, to which the now largely service-based and financialized UK plc remains indebted.

 Education without jobs

New Labour attempted to accommodate the national to the global economy, obscuring the abandonment of gradual social democratic reform by espousing ‘modernisation’. This meant adopting Thatcherism but with some redistribution. Much of this redistribution was funded on debt, both personal (as with university fees) and institutional, for example through private-public partnerships. So, when the bubble burst in 2008, there was nowhere for New Labour to go.

Nevertheless, investment in ‘human capital’ continues to substitute for economic investment in desperate hopes that more ‘skills’ (actually qualifications) will somehow produce jobs and advance individual careers, despite general downward social mobility replacing the previous limited upward social mobility. Meanwhile, the reserve army of labour has again been recast – from permanently unemployed into low wage, precarious employment.

New middle-working class youth, desperate for secure semi-professional employment, pay tripled uni’ fees to run up a down-escalator of devaluing qualifications. They are spurred on by top-down policies for ‘raising standards’ in schools, supposedly creating equal opportunities to be unequal. This has significantly altered the culture of primary and secondary schooling, even before austerity ransacked school services, whilst Further and Adult Education faces potential collapse and several universities near bankruptcy.

The May government, supported by financial and largely US-based capital against pro-European remnants of UK’s productive capital, now seeks to institutionalise this race to the bottom with its Brexit strategy. This is another desperate move towards a third new form of the state that can be called the Consolidation State, since it would consolidate debt through continuing austerity, accompanied by the privatisation of remaining services, reducing those who can’t pay for them to penury.

Back to 1945?

In reaction to this austerity and against ferocious resistance within his own party, Jeremy Corbyn has restored Labour’s electoral chances – and in a ‘progressive alliance’ with Nationalist parties and Greens may well have been in government! Evoking the spirit of the 1944 Act and the comprehensive reforms that followed, Corbyn’s Labour has promised a ‘cradle to grave’ National Education Service. More specifically, the 2017 manifesto presented policies for reversing spending cuts, improving pay for teachers and other education workers by ending the cap on public sector pay, restoring accountability and encouraging co-operation rather than competition between schools, a major review of primary school assessment, better technical education and apprenticeships and, perhaps, most notable of all, the ending of university tuition fees.

Nobody would dispute the significance of these commitments but 2017 is not 1945. However, Labour thinking on education assumes that education reform takes place against a background of an expanding economy, rather than a declining one; also, one that requires a more highly skilled and highly educated workforce. Another variant of this is that improvements in education help grow the economy which then contributes to upward social mobility seen as ‘social justice’.

This ignores the fact that in the polarised and redivided labour market sketched above, the only social mobility is downward. Labour does not recognise the changed occupational structure following the latest applications of new technology in employment – the Manifesto brushes away any possibility that robotics and AI may worsen employment prospects. Instead, following repeated failed efforts to modernise apprenticeships, it joins the cross-party and professional consensus on ‘rebuilding the vocational route’ along the lines suggested in the Sainsbury Review, not understanding that Cameron’s promised three million apprenticeships are mostly low-grade, low-skilled, and temporary placements in low-value service sectors because there is insufficient demand from employers for anything else.

Therefore, far from being caused by easier exams, or being the result of deliberately dumbing down standards, the increased level of performance (Gove’s ‘grade inflation’) follows from teachers at all levels teaching a competence curriculum to young people who study harder but learn less. More jobs demand degrees but more graduates end up ‘overqualified but underemployed’, pushing those without degrees further down the jobs queue.


As globalisation stutters, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have countered with an economic strategy based on intervention rather than the free market. Whether, without an international stimulus, this can ‘take back control’ to more than temporarily delay the changes in employment outlined above is doubtful. This threatens a prolonged crisis of legitimacy for education and for Labour. Failure to confront it will lead to disillusion amongst the student and various other young and service-sector unionised enthusiasts who with many others coalesced around the Party in June 2017 in hopes of ending austerity.



Labour’s Techbacc and Apprenticeships.

scot 054 (2)Martin Allen  argues that Labour’s manifesto leaves as many questions as it provides answers

Claiming to offer a new alternative for young people at the upper end of secondary school and in Further Education, Labour’s election manifesto retains some old themes –particularly in its policies for vocational education where it wants to introduce a Technical Baccalaureate and ‘create a route for the 50% of young people who do not go down the traditional academic route’ (Labour Manifesto: 37).

The Techbacc will, Labour says,  act as  ‘gold standard’ qualification at post-16, be accredited by employers and include a quality workplace placement.  This could be considered a welcome change after Michael Gove’s  preoccupation with academic subjects of his English Baccalaureate, his  obsession with returning to  ‘grammar school’  assessment, with end of course written exams, rather than modules and  the  further obliteration of coursework.  In many other respects however, there is a serious danger that past mistakes will be repeated.

A raft of different vocational awards have emerged since the 1990s, GNVQs, Vocational A-levels and finally the infamous Specialist 14-19 Diplomas on which Labour spent millions and which were already stalling by the time Gove came to office and quickly abolished the extra funding for them.  Ironically many schools and colleges have now returned to the BTEC qualifications, that the reforms sought to replace.  

The main problem with vocational qualifications is that they’ve never enjoyed the same status as academic ones and have been seen as only appropriate for ‘non-academic’ students. They’ve also lacked currency with the very employers who are said to need them.  More significantly, the value of vocational qualifications is being further eradicated due to the polarisation of  labour market opportunities and the disappearance of the sorts of ‘intermediate’ jobs they are designed for.  Besides, employers now have plenty of under-employed graduates they can fill these jobs where they do remain!

Most reformers , including the National Union of Teachers, have recognised that either vocational and academic qualifications need to be properly linked together by an overarching certificate, which was the aim of the 2005  Tomlinson report,  or that separate vocational pathways should be abolished completely and vocational study available as an  option linked to a common core of a General Diploma.  Previous Labour governments, reluctant to undermine the status of the GCE A-level  have not followed this advice though. Reformers have also worked within a 14-19 perspective with the main assessment at 18, but, at least for the moment, Labour has accepted Gove’s GCSE reforms and with it the assumption that assessment at 16 should  continue to be the most important part of secondary education.

Labour has said almost nothing  about the detail of  how  the Techbacc will be constructed,  so we’d have to assume that rather than spend money on new ones,  a deficit reducing Miliband government would use either the existing vocational  awards  –those that have not been culled by Gove, or follow the approach of Lord Baker and his University Technology Colleges (UTCs) –although the manifesto says Labour will transform high performing FE colleges into Institutes of Technical Education, because of the Techbacc’s  post-16 focus.

It isn’t clear either, how the Techbacc will exist alongside apprenticeships. While the Conservatives, following the recommendations of the 2011 Wolf Review,   want to replace many  vocational courses with apprenticeships, Labour has signalled its intentions to  also provide apprenticeship opportunities for all young people qualified to do them. It wants to ensure that these run to at least level 3 (A-level equivalent) are also ‘gold-standard’ and that apprentices can progress to new technical degrees.  

Given that  many of the current apprenticeships continue to be  low-skill  and ‘dead end’ this is to be  welcomed, but any future government will not  be able to deliver apprenticeship promises,  let alone rebuild vocational education as a worthwhile option for young people, unless there is an economic strategy to create  higher skilled secure employment, rather than  the  low-paid, low skilled,  ‘zero-hours’ jobs on which the recent ‘recovery’ has  depended.

Tristram Hunt and ‘Two Nation’ Labour.

Tristram Hunt
Tristram Hunt

untitled1Vocational education is supposed to improve work and employment skills, but many of the vocational courses developed in schools and colleges after the collapse of industrial apprenticeships in the 1970s have not offered real opportunities for young people in the labour market. Instead, a succession of vocational courses and qualifications were introduced, lasted a few years and were then discarded in favour of new ones.

Some of these were high profile youth training schemes with new qualifications, such as the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) that claimed parity of esteem with A-levels. Some were expensive white elephants like the specialist diplomas championed by New Labour. The most durable were the BTEC awards. They all aimed to provide new types of ‘soft skills’ needed across the growing service sector.

Even though vocational qualifications offered at Advanced level provided opportunities to enter higher education, academic qualifications continued to represent ‘powerful knowledge’ in terms of the jobs market and access to more prestigious universities. Schools and colleges in the 1990s were encouraged by Lord Dearing’s pathways approach to his review of the National Curriculum to use vocational qualifications for ‘non-academic’ students. The more student-friendly pedagogy and less hierarchical classroom relationships involved in these new qualifications were said to reflect the modern workplace but also provided ways for teachers and lecturers to gentle these students along a low status route.

However, the repackaging of vocational qualifications as ‘applied’ learning – part of New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 proposals – could not widen the student base nor gather greater employer support. As a result, many teachers and educationalists  continued to be suspicious of the pathways approach, seeing it as reflecting the divisions of the 1944 Act and contradicting the comprehensive principle of an inclusive and broadly balanced curriculum. More recently, the standing of vocational qualifications was reduced further as some schools entered entire cohorts for vocational ‘equivalents’ to improve their standing in GCSE league tables.

On coming to office, Michael Gove commissioned Professor Alison Wolf to review vocational learning. Wolf argued that students put on vocational pathways at 14 were ‘short-changed’ in the labour market because of the poor quality and low value of these courses. In response, Gove streamlined the number of vocational courses available at 14 and 16, but also demanded more ‘rigour’. By this he meant that to qualify as one of the eight subjects on which new school league tables would be formulated, a vocational qualification had to follow certain criteria, could not count as more than one GCSE and had to have more external assessment.

But Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach was rejected by Lord Baker, the creator of City Technology Colleges in the 1980s. Baker argued for a continuation of the Dearing approach and reintroduced University Technology Colleges to provide a vocational/technical specialism sometimes linked to a particular company or university.  

Baker’s approach has been adopted by Labour. The Adonis Review has called for 100 UTCs to be established  by  2020  (, while Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt, used his  speech to the Microsoft Foundation  to attack the ‘backwardness’ of Gove’s deluded grammar schools for all approach. He also reaffirmed the Party’s commitment to the Tech-Bacc, agreeing with Lord Baker that the main problem with the 1944 Act was the underdevelopment of technical schools which put the UK at a disadvantage in ‘the global skills race’ (

Hunt’s ‘Two Nation Labour’ approach also proposes the rebranding of further education colleges as ‘Institutes of Technical Education’ for those school leavers who have failed on the academic route  and Labour has already announced new Technical Degrees ( involving part-time/ day release study – and as with the current two-year foundation degrees likely to be be delivered through the Further Education sector.

Labour’s desire to create a stronger ‘technician level’ route into employment is also reflected in its policies for reforming apprenticeships, where the Adonis Review correctly identifies many of their shortcomings. Firstly, apprenticeships are invariably low-level with minimal training, still predominantly for adults and mainly in low-paid service sectors like health and social care; customer service; and hospitality & catering. The Review also correctly calls for the public, rather than the private sector to play a leading role in apprenticeship creation.

Adonis, like Lord Baker, is an admirer of the success of German technical education and apprenticeships and his Review emphasises the need for a more general industrial strategy. But given the continued slide to a low-wage,  economy with ‘lousy’ not ‘lovely’ jobs (,  the sort of measures proposed are far too little, too late and well short of those implemented in post-war Germany! Adonis and Labour also overestimate the extent to which the UK’s industrial and technological demise can be arrested by the creation of ‘high quality’ vocational education and training. This would need to be linked to a massive increase of (public) investment and rigorous economic planning, hardly compatible with a UK style free market and ‘flexible’ economy.

In any case, the huge rise in the number of graduates means that they, rather than school leavers or apprentices, increasingly fill ‘non-graduate’ jobs. Surveys report between a third to half of new graduates being pushed down into jobs they are over-qualified for. Half a million applicants to higher education this year (a record number) shows that, despite debts for exorbitant fees to pay more for less at overcrowded universities, young people realise that a degree offers their best chance of the secure the  professional employment they crave.

As a result, rather than trying to rebuild a vocational route, it would be better to provide a good general education for everybody with a school-leaving certificate at 18 providing entitlement to different types of learning, including learning about work as well as to work, plus major reforms to the delivery and assessment of ‘academic’ education to make it more relevant and accessible to all.