Across the dispatch box: education

Jennifer O’Mahony and Polly Ingham speak to David Willets and Bill Rammell who discuss the future of education from both sides of the Commons

Jennifer O’Mahony and Polly Ingham discuss the future of education from both sides of the Commons.

David Willetts – Shadow Education Secretary

David Willetts asks me if I’m going to interrogate him. I laugh to avoid the question, and hope this puts him at ease. Willetts is one of the few controversial figures still left in the Shadow Cabinet. He infamously broke ranks over grammar schools this year, suggesting that there should not be a freeze on building new selective state schools. It cost him his position but not his career; he is now the Secretary of State for Innovation, Higher Education and Skills.

We meet the day after the Queen’s Speech; “What is the point of that man?” Willets says acidly of Gordon Brown, “What is he for?” He holds Brown’s proposals for education in equal contempt. Our first topic is the proposed compulsory leaving age of 18. This is described as “forcing” pupils to stay on when they don’t have the will or the ability to do so. Willetts’ alternative would be more autonomy in education: “We need more and better apprenticeships. We need an emphasis on the fundamentals of performance up to age 16, so that basic performance in literacy and numeracy allows them to get the qualifications needed.”

To Willets, Blair’s legacy is a set of half-baked reforms that didn’t go far enough in terms of providing choice. Willetts also wants more autonomy for City Academies. He believes they are “delivering a dramatic turnaround”, but one wonders whether they fit more into the economic model for education he prefers, even if their actual progress is limited.

Willets is himself the product of a Birmingham grammar school, but his children go to fee-paying independents like Godolphin and Latymer in West London. Would he not have preferred to send his children into the state system which, partly at least, helped him to be where he is today? “It’s a reasonable decision… There is no inconsistency between what I say and what I’ve done as a parent. I do believe in a high-quality state education system, but it’s up to the individual parent to make that decision.” But for all his protestations about the democracy of widening choice, he does not deny that a turn to consumerism in education will make parents and pupils into “customers”, with all the implications for market inequality that this will inevitably bring.

As for university students, Willetts believes that top-up fees have made us “more savvy”. That is a massively euphemistic phrase to describe the result of the average £18,000 debt shackled to our ankles when we graduate. “Students are now consumers, and a good thing too,” he says. Standards of quality in education are important, and on this point Willetts is admittedly right: “Students are entitled to information like employment statistics. The contact hours and graduate-level job prospects are things students are entitled to know as part of the contractual agreement.”

Market forces in the state education system is Willetts’s openly acknowledged aim. What the country will have to decide is whether it wants an education system where choice of schools is dictated by wealth.

Read the full transcript of this interview: here

Bill Rammell – Minister for Higher Education

The Labour government has often been criticised for exercising unimaginative, target-driven leadership, and no other policy area reflects this notion as strongly as education. Statistics, both international and of their own invention, appear to be at the core of Labour’s motivation.

The most recent of these initiatives is to raise the compulsory schooling age to 17 in 2013, and again to 18 in 2015. During a recent visit to the University, Bill Rammell, Minister for Higher Education, refuted the simplicity of this notion, stating: “We’ve got to stop seeing this described as raising the school leaving age”.

This policy would be enforced by fines of up to £200 for any child caught truanting. There would be financial incentives in the form of an Educational Maintenance Allowance, which provides students with up to £30 a week for good attendance. However, so far this has only seen a 4% increase in the number of boys staying on in further education.

Labour are also implementing diplomas to serve as a viable alternative to A-levels. The impression is of an inward focus for our education system, but international prestige is actually more important. As Bill Rammell neatly asserted, “you look at the international evidence and those universities that are at the forefront of globalization of higher education, most advanced countries have got higher education participation rates than we’ve got”.

But a report this month outlined the “unrealistic” deadline for the creation of the diplomas, as well as its lack of authority, with A-levels and GCSEs remaining the choice qualifications. Two days prior, authorities had suggested that the academic standard of these traditional qualifications was decreasing.

Labour’s most publicised educational aim is to have 50% of all pupils attending higher education by 2010. The figures have been lodged at 43% for several years, and it ap­pears Labour will not bridge the 7% gap by its own deadline. When questioned on the matter Rammell said that “it is an incredibly competitive global environment. We’ve got to get many more people from different backgrounds going to university.” Many believe that a more important goal is to improve the education we already have access to.

Further discussion with Rammell shows Labour’s incentive to inflate education participation numbers, rather than improve the education itself. In September the government withdrew funding for second degree students, shutting the door to those who want to pursue a new career but have little personal funding. Rammell refused to apologise for the policy, claiming it was the “right one”, and that the 70% of people already in the workforce who don’t have degrees are a greater priority.

Like so many on the government benches Rammell’s belief in the positive influence of the market is clear. How far it will be taken forward remains to be seen.

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