Postcard From America: Adult Education Is Key To Future Prosperity

I’m currently back in the United States to celebrate Christmas in Texas. These short “Postcards from America” will document a few of my thoughts as I escape the political whirlwind of Westminster and look back at Britain from the vantage point of our closest ally

In America, not everyone waits passively for government to improve their life circumstances. Aided by a thriving community college sector, people take their futures into their own hands

While sitting in the cinema waiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to begin, I was struck by the number of local advertisements for regional schools, community colleges and universities which were shown.

By my reckoning, at least 40% of the commercials screened over a fifteen minute period were promoting some kind of educational service. Contrast this with the United Kingdom, where local commercials of any kind are a rarity, and most national commercials these days tend to be for banks, fast-moving consumer goods, the EE mobile phone network (featuring Kevin Bacon) or one of the limited number of other companies able to afford a national cinema campaign.

An example of the type of commercial screened at the south Texas cinema I attended is shown above. Typically, they feature personal testimonials from ordinary people who explain simply and positively how going back into education has helped them in their careers, how the various modes of study fitted in around their existing home and work commitments, and how easy/affordable it turned out to be.

These degrees and diplomas provide a springboard into skilled, middle class jobs, many of which are well paid and non-outsourceable. Dental nurses, IT engineers, electricians, car mechanics and many other such career opportunities. Recognising that not everybody can be – or wants to be – an elite lawyer or doctor, these institutions equip people with tangible skills which actively help them in the labour market, ensuring that their career options are far greater than the prospect of 40 years working at the 7-eleven, or some other minimum wage drudgery.

This emphasis on adult education is one sign of a more active and engaged citizenry, of a people who understand that their self advancement and personal destiny is in their own hands, not those of the government.

To be fair, some British politicians are also coming to realise the importance of adult education to keep our own workforce skilled, adaptable and capable of commanding high wages rather than minimum wages. During the Labour leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn floated his plan for a National Education Service to do for lifelong learning what the NHS did for healthcare.

From the Conservatives, however, there has been nothing. Not a squeak from Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who supposedly has future leadership ambitions of her own and therefore might be expected to have a substantive policy or two up her sleeve. What are the Conservative government’s bright ideas for a more market-oriented, privately delivered solution to the adult education gap?

Banging on about apprenticeships is all very well, but what of adults over 25 who cannot take an apprenticeship under the current schemes, or who want to work in a field where none exist? What of the 55-year-old steelworker made redundant with few other transferable skills?

A conservative government worth its salt would look at Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a National Education Service, balk at the more nakedly socialist aspects, but then consider how a smaller and leaner government might be able to promote the education of the adult workforce in pursuance of the national interest. But of course our current Coke Zero Conservative government is not worth its salt.

If Britain is to prosper in this globalised age – and if our poorest, most disadvantaged fellow citizens are to be spared from a harsh life of minimum wage drudgery – we need a learning revolution in the United Kingdom, a British Apollo Program for education.

What party, what future leader will rise to the occasion and propose a solution equal to the task at hand?

Community College

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The Tories Should Steal Jeremy Corbyn’s Plan For A National Education Service

Jeremy Corbyn - National Education Service - Education Policy

A version of this article was first published on the Conservatives for Liberty blog.

A top-down reorganisation of Britain’s education system, giving the state full control over education at all levels and for all ages would be a terrible, frightening idea. But could conservatives pick up Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a National Education Service and give it a libertarian twist to inspire a genuine consumer-focused revolution in life-long learning?

Whether you hail Jeremy Corbyn as the left wing saviour of British politics or intend to hide behind the sofa on 12 September lest his election as Labour Leader ushers in a dark new era of Soviet communism, no one can deny that Corbyn’s candidacy has brought a certain level of partisan excitement back to drab, consensual British politics.

But as always happens when an outsider threatens to show up the bipartisan political elite and their soul-sapping sameness, the media has focused on whipping up hysteria about some of Corbyn’s off-the-cuff pronouncements, like his remark that we might potentially learn something from Karl Marx (as though we can only learn from historical figures who we 100% agree with) or twisting Corbyn’s words to suggest that he supports re-instating Clause Four and the historic Labour commitment to public ownership of industry.

You don’t have to be a fully paid-up Tory to realise that this headline-bating and click-chasing detracts from the serious discussion of any policy specifics which Corbyn has announced, and which might lead to the start of a real debate if only the media did their job properly. Take Jeremy Corbyn’s recent proposal for a National Education Service to rival the National Health Service.

While failing to provide many concrete details of what this “cradle to grave” education system might look like, Corbyn did offer this glimpse:

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When Will Labour Be Honest About Private Schools?

eton college


Another day, another “revelation” that Britain is a deeply elitist, socially segregated country thanks to the harmful influence of private schools and their irritating habit of setting their students up to succeed with a good education and useful network of influential contacts.

The Guardian reports on the findings of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. And on the face of it, the statistics are compelling:

Only 7% of members of the public attended a private school. But 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior officers in the armed forces, 55% of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords and 45% of public body chairs did so.

So too did 44% of people on the Sunday Times Rich List, 43% of newspaper columnists, 36% of cabinet ministers, 33% of MPs, 26% of BBC executives and 22% of shadow cabinet ministers.

Oxbridge graduates also have a stranglehold on top jobs. They comprise less than 1% of the public as a whole, but 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs, 38% of members of the House of Lords, 33% of BBC executives, 33% of shadow cabinet ministers, 24% of MPs and 12% of those on the Sunday Times Rich List.

These figures certainly prove something, but not necessarily what the outraged commentators on the left think they prove. What these statistics show is a strong justification for the entirely rational choices of people with sufficient means to opt out of the state education system and go private. If you are at all normal and want the best for your child, why would you not place them in the hands of the system that is so much more likely to deliver the best social and educational outcomes?

Cue the inevitable wails of outreach from the usual suspects. First up, Owen Jones:

Why does the unfairness highlighted by the report matter? As it points out, elitism leaves “leading institutions less informed, less representative and, ultimately, less credible than they should be”, meaning they focus “on issues that are of salience only to a minority but not the majority in society”. If there are so few journalists and politicians who have experienced, say, low wages or a struggle for affordable home, then the media and political elite will be less likely to deal with these issues adequately. Instead, they will reflect the prejudices, assumptions and experiences of the uber-privileged.

No serious person would argue that this is not a problem – though many choose to quietly ignore the point out of self interest. It is certainly true that in journalism as with many other professions, a lack of people from diverse backgrounds materially harms the organisations doing the hiring. But an astute business or institution should already be aware of this fact, and have recruitment policies in place to ensure that they identify and attract talented people from non-traditional backgrounds. Jones and others never make a convincing case as to why the labour market cannot do this on its own, without the help of state coercion.

But as always, it is an active state to which the left instinctively turn. Jones’ take:

Certainly Britain is in desperate need of radical measures to ensure all can realise their aspirations, including the banning of unpaid internships, the scrapping of charitable status for private schools, investment in early-years education, and dealing with issues such as overcrowded homes that stifle educational attainment. But surely Britain’s chronically unequal distribution of wealth and power has to be tackled too.

Then, depressingly, the shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt chimes in:

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said the report showed the coalition was failing on social mobility. “Under the Tories, the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and the rest is increasing, millions of hardworking people are seeing their living standards go backwards and child poverty is set to increase,” he said.

And finally the Guardian’s editorial on the subject, which sums up the landscape well enough but whose only proposed solutions are vastly inadequate to their supposed goal of ensuring that state-educated people are proportionally represented in the top professions:

The fundamental reason why so few top families can grab so many top jobs is precisely because they are able to provide the education, the environment and the networks that will eventually make their children’s job applications stand out from the pile. It is a very human, and in some ways commendable, thing for people to seek to give their kids a hand-up. No Whitehall initiative is going to counteract this urge, which is in any case shared across families from all classes. It does damage only because bankrolling unpaid work experience placements and master’s degrees, which would be ruinous for households across much of the scale, is so easy for those at the top.

Governments can – and should – extend minimum-wage laws to cover more internships, encourage universities to pay special attention to top grades earned in tough circumstances and support new routes into politics and the professions, to replace those that have closed with the withering of the unions, the local press and the culture of the apprentice. They can, and should, take care not to fragment state education in ways which – Swedish experience suggests – can leave schools prone to class segregation. But they should not delude themselves that any of it will create the meritocracy of the rhetoric unless they also do something about a wealth gap that easily warps into an opportunity gulf.

All of these people are very good at pointing out inequality where it exists, and saying that it is an outrage. Where they fall short is coming up with suitable, intellectually honest ideas for tackling it.

Having identified that attending private school gives an advantage to those students over state educated children, Labour’s proposed correctives are all variants on the same woolly and inadequate remedy. Revoke the charitable status of private schools. Subject such schools to harsher inspections or more stringent teacher hiring criteria. Enshrine reverse discrimination against private school students into law, and actively encourage businesses to look past paper accomplishments at the wider picture of an applicant (which many of the world’s best firms do already, out of self interest).

But why will the darlings of the British left, always first to proclaim their outrage at the unsurprising news that an expensive education is a worthwhile investment, not be honest about their ideal outcome? If private schools are causing so much damage and inequality in our society, why not ban them altogether? Why be content with continually talking them down and making it marginally more difficult for them to operate?

Why, instead of continually carping at the success achieved by private schools (and indeed any school that struggles free from centralised control), will prominent left-wing politicians not openly promise to “destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”, as one-time Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland muttered in private, and expand the threat to every fee-charging school as well?

If Labour is to maintain even the vestige of continued acceptance of the free market, they must hold that the final decision on hiring school and university leavers must rest with the business concerned, not with some faceless “equality and merit panel”. And this means that hiring managers must be free to compare the attributes of publicly and privately educated applicants and pick the candidates who they believe will do the best job.

A future Labour government then has only two realistic choices if they want to push down the stubbornly high percentage of professional jobs occupied by privately educated people, rather than just complaining about it – they can work to actively sabotage private schools through government policy until their educational outcomes fall back in line with their state school counterparts and the economic incentive no longer exists for most parents to choose them, or they can take the totalitarian path and simply order all of Britain’s private schools closed immediately.

In a million years, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party will never argue for the latter policy (though they might well attempt a little bit of the former on the sly) because, unsurprisingly, the modern Labour Party is every bit as stuffed to the brim with privately educated scions of privilege as is the Conservative Party. Labour do not want to see the back of Britain’s private schools because not only do Labour MPs, party apparatchiks and their families benefit handsomely from using them, a truly egalitarian education system where every child is held down to the same level of uniform mediocrity would rob Labour of it’s apparent core purpose – arbitrarily picking winners and subordinating the rights of the individual to some undemocratic, ghastly master plan that they constantly revise.

Today’s report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission does little more than reveal the obvious – that paying for a private education results in benefits commensurate to their cost. Ed Miliband and the Labour Party can either accept this as a fact of life and look at ways of expanding access for talented but disadvantaged children into that better system, or they can advocate eliminating the inequity altogether and propose shutting down the private education industry.

What we should not tolerate any more from the Labour Party is their tired habit of using social inequalities to build political capital while proposing no policy solutions commensurate with their scale.

Finally, Rejecting The Mediocre In Education Policy

On the right track.


It is quotes such as this, from Education Secretary Michael Gove, which remind me why I pounded the pavements in support of my local Conservative parliamentary candidate back in the 2010 general election:

“My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee paying independent.

“We know England’s private schools are the best independent schools in the world. Why shouldn’t state schools be the best state schools in the world?

“I want to see state schools where the vast majority of pupils have the grades and skills to apply for university, if they want to, where a pupil being accepted to Oxbridge is not a cause for celebration, but a matter of course.

“Where it is the norm for state pupils to enjoy brilliant extra-curricular activities like sports, orchestras, cadets, choir, drama, debating, the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and more.”

There have been many disappointments from the Conservative-led government since they came to power and ejected Gordon Brown from office. Only last week in Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron could not bring himself to say that taxes should ideally be cut for all citizens across all income levels – instead trying to outflank Ed Miliband and appease his supporters by claiming that the rich and successful were paying more under the Conservatives despite the abolition of the 50% top rate of income tax. But while David Cameron and Theresa May equivocate on civil liberties, and while George Osborne neither delights nor grossly offends at the Treasury, Michael Gove continues to quietly get the job done over at Education.

The Telegraph reports on Gove’s upcoming keynote speech at the London Academy of Excellence:

State schools will test children using private school exams for the first time under plans to make them the “best in the world”, the education secretary will say in a speech on Monday.

Michael Gove will say that schools must set their standards “so high” that they are indistinguishable from the best fee-paying schools like Eton and Harrow.

He will say he wants to end the perception that state education is “bog standard” by emulating independent schools with tougher tests, longer school days, more extra-curricular activities and better discipline.

There are some indisputably good ideas in the meat of the speech – ideas such as setting state school children some of the same exams used to measure ability in private schools, and using international tests to better benchmark performance against schools in other countries. It is similarly hard to argue against the renewed emphasis on extracurricular activities and discipline.

Of course, reciting a shopping list of common sense ideas doesn’t mean that the British educational system will improve overnight, or even that dramatic improvements will come about in the very short term. Neither does it acknowledge the reality that all of these changes will be of zero benefit if parents remain disengaged from their children’s education, either unable or unwilling to nurture and help them, or if poverty and the varied symptoms of socioeconomic disadvantage continue to suppress the educational attainment of poorer children. And too often, the Labour Party have more to say on mitigating these real problems than do the Conservatives.

But there is no reason why we should not hold these high aspirations for our public schools, and use this aspirational language as Michael Gove does. Indeed, there is something refreshing about it, and this is what makes Gove so appealing to many people of a libertarian-Conservative persuasion. Gone is the talk about sharing burdens, paying “fair shares”, postcode lotteries and equality of outcome, and in its place we have talk of benchmarking, experimentation, variation and unbounded possibility. It is quite hard to not get excited, even in the absence of any of the finer detail as to how we get there.

The Telegraph’s editorial mirrors this optimism and sense of a refreshing change:

This is why his agenda for state schools so terrifies the Left. It represents a much-awaited rejection of bog-standard equality in favour of the excellence that typifies the independent ethos.

We shall observe with interest the reaction from the rest of the news media as it comes in. And as always, the devil will be in the details. But with precious little by way of new policy announcements or radical ideas as the coalition government trudges toward lame duck status and general election 2015, at least one government minister is still doing his job.

Making The Rich Pay Twice

We recently saw the Labour Party make some potentially sensible proposals on education – moving to enhance the status of teachers by simultaneously licensing them and requiring them to undertake continual professional accreditation, and making it easier to fire consistently underperforming teachers and helping them transition out of the profession.

Contrast this good news of the Labour Party embracing a carrot-and-stick performance-based approach to educational reform, with this dismal, tired suggestion from Social Market Foundation. The Guardian reports the details of their latest proposal:

One proposal would see popular state schools being means tested, with the most affluent parents being charged for their children to attend top schools.

Families earning more than £80,000 a year should contribute financially, with those with an annual income above £200,000 having to pay the full price of their children’s education at the best state schools. Fees should be the same for the wealthy as those charged at independent day schools.

This “parent premium” for households earning more than £200,000 a year would generate surplus funds, a quarter of which would be retained by the school, with the rest redistributed among other state schools.

We can lump this nonsensical idea together with all of the other vengeful “clobber the rich” schemes broached by those on the left to create a fairly accurate picture of their ideal Britain. In their Ideal Britain, anyone earning much over £150,000 a year would be subject to a 50% marginal tax rate on their income. And when they reached £200,000 a year, a household wanting to send their children to a “popular state school” would have to pay a school fee in line with the fees charged by private day schools, because why the hell not?

Meaningless graphic for a nonsensical policy.
Meaningless graphic for a nonsensical policy.

Implementing this policy would likely cause a fair bit of bemusement and anger among the evil rich fat cats being targeted, as they rightly assume that the hefty taxes that they pay entitle them to equal access to the state services that they help to fund. If, when a household has paid well over half of their income to the government once income tax, national insurance, other direct taxes and VAT are taken into account, I don’t think it is very unreasonable to assume that they have contributed enough and maybe give them a break. But not according to the Social Market Foundation. Having gone through the fiscal wringer once already, SMF sees them ripe for further punitive action, charging them for access to the good state schools that they are already paying to fund.

What next? Means testing access to NHS services? Charging for chemotherapy or kidney transplants? Where does this end?

In fact, the SMF proposal would create the bizarre and perverse financial incentive for parents to send their child to a “less good” or less popular state school so as to avoid spending up to £30,000 a year in fees. Their children might suffer as a result, but perhaps those who advocate for ideas such as this would see that as a good thing. By dragging down the progeny of the rich and successful, we create the more equal, mediocre society that they long for.

This is regressive social engineering of the worst kind, dragging down the successful and clobbering them for more money, funds which would be used for the nebulous purpose of “helping the less fortunate”. As always, the methods of taking from the rich and successful are very enthusiastically and clearly articulated, but the process by which those seized funds would be translated directly into helping the less fortunate is much more vague.

The long and short of it is this. I may greatly disagree with the current heavy tax burden, and the huge, creaking behemoth state that it funds, but I also recognise that it is the concept of everyone paying in and everyone being eligible to partake of the results that helps to create social cohesion and makes us a country rather than a bunch of economic agents who happen to live on the same island. Charging richer parents to send their children to schools that they have already paid taxes to provide – indeed, closing off access to any public services from the wealthy people who provide the lions share of the funding for them – only serves to further entrench the us vs. them atmosphere already roiling our country, but this time would give the rich some ammunition to justifiably argue their corner.

Spending on education increased from £40.6 billion in 1999 to £88.6 billion in 2014, and is estimated to rise further to £90.9 billion in 2016. If British educational standards are indeed stagnating or worsening, chronic underinvestment does not make a convincing scapegoat. Making rich people pay market rates to avail themselves of the public services that they have already funded through their taxes would no doubt fulfill many of the darker, more insidious desires of some on the left. But one thing that it would certainly not do is fix our educational problems.