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Labour need to get creative to tackle the class ceiling

By Dr Marius Ostrowski, Executive Director, LEI

Talking about class is back in fashion. On Thursday morning, Keir Starmer held a speech at Mid Kent College, Gillingham, outlining how a future Labour government would use education reform to break down barriers to opportunity. His stated priority is to break the “class ceiling”. To overturn the mixture of structural disadvantage, differences in soft skills, and snobbish “soft bigotry” about learning and job choices that keep those who are up, up, and those who are down, down. “To fight the pernicious idea that background equals destiny.”

Starmer outlined five priorities in his speech, which signal the broad direction Labour’s education policy offer is moving in as the party consolidates its manifesto. One focus is early-years education, as Bridget Phillipson already trailed earlier this week. Another is reforming the curriculum to include digital skills for a world shaped by AI, and ensure that pupils study creative subjects and sport up to 16. But the clear linchpin of Labour’s education approach is a desire to shine a light on vocational education. To raise its standing not just among businesses, colleges, and parents, but across the whole of society.

There is much of value in Labour’s proposals. Reforming Progress 8 to overcome its academic bias, to give pupils equal grounding in “practical problem-solving and academic rigour”, is a very welcome idea. Crafting a national curriculum that moves beyond a narrow STEM focus, and that treats learning as more than just an instrument to churn out the workers of tomorrow, is long-overdue. So is the increased focus on creativity, resilience, emotional intelligence, and adaptability—the different learning styles and “soft skills” that make us well-rounded humans rather than working automatons or “learning machines”.

But if the idea is to put vocational training front and centre, to ensure it gets the same respect as academic learning, Labour must go further to transform the compulsory core skills we acquire. It has to go beyond piecemeal interventions in the 0–19 learning trajectory, and take on the more ambitious aim of system-wide reform of education as a whole. Labour cannot simply “bank” the achievements it claims in schools and higher education. It has to join the dots between every stage, from early-years to schools to colleges and universities. To look at how we learn over the course of our whole lives.

Its bid for flexibility in the options businesses have to upskill their workers is a case in point. Labour is pursuing an apprenticeship-first approach to vocational learning. But, given how challenging these can be for SMEs to support, Labour is also endorsing flexible options like tech boot camps, technical courses, and traineeships. What is still unclear is how all these options dovetail together into a single, coherent, effective vocational education system. We are also no nearer finding out any concrete details about how Labour’s long-heralded “growth and skills levy” will work, and how it will do better than the current apprenticeship levy in financing these vocational options.

The focus on 0–19 obscures how the class inequalities Starmer mentions persist into later life. Confident communication in the workplace is a lifelong issue, as are asymmetries in workers’ relative proficiencies in academic and vocational skills that predetermine their promotion chances. How will Labour give lifelong learners the same “steely core”, the same versatility in knowledge and skills? How will it foster in them a lasting “curiosity and a love of learning”? How will Labour ensure colleges act as local hubs and magnets for vocational talent, rather than gateways to help learners escape their local areas?

The answer does not lie in creating another layer of skills bureaucracy, in the form of Skills England. If Labour wants to put a national body on the case of boosting vocational learning, it has a ready-made option already in the Unit for Future Skills. Labour should expand the Unit’s remit from data aggregation and insight to proactive oversight of the national skills plan—turning the Unit into a roving “think and do tank” in Government that offers policy advice tailored to local areas. Declustering economic success means joining up industrial strategy with information about sectoral needs in every corner of the UK.

Overall, Labour is right to focus on the penalties that accrue to certain kinds of learning in the UK. Vocational learning has to become something that is not just “good to have” but “good to do”, in specific, imaginative, and innovative ways. If Labour wants to reward the effort and enterprise of those who pick a vocational path, it must do more to explain how it will support them. The party has placed its hopes in a vocational renaissance. It now has to help bring this renaissance about.


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