Angela Rayner, Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Creating a first-class system of vocational education

One of the biggest challenges we face as a country, whatever happens with Brexit, will be creating a first-class system of vocational education that gives all our young people a chance in life.

Vocational education should be a cornerstone of a national economic development plan that focuses on improving the quality of work, career and job progression, and providing a living wage.

In Everyday Socialism, a new Fabian Society pamphlet, I argue it will need to be a system of education and skills fit not only for the automation and artificial intelligence of the new digital machine age, but for developing the everyday economy of retail, utilities, care and public services which sustain our daily lives.

The economic resources of the new economy will not be dug out of the ground. They will be found in the life of the mind, in understanding human feelings, in the capacity to develop relationships, in skill, craft and culture.

These skills will not just be in quantum computing, digital engineering, the internet of things, and nanotechnology, but in sport, the care of children and older people, health and wellbeing, transport and housing; and green jobs, creating and maintaining renewable sources of energy, recycling and repairing.

Local knowledge and expertise hand in hand with national strategy

These are the markets of the future: the work we need to build our economy and society. As technology gets more sophisticated, so human understanding and ingenuity will become more valuable.

A successful vocational education system will only work if local knowledge and expertise works hand in hand with the national strategy of government.

We hear a lot about how value is created by innovation, technology, and investment, but rarely about the value created by the labour of workers.

A vocation requires thousands of hours of application to a technical skill or craft, and a dedication to the traditions and knowledge of skilled labour. It is not in principle second best to academic education but equal to it.

Labour’s strategic objective must be to bring vocational and academic education into a unitary system of education.

But simply imposing top-down change will not improve the system and nor will starting again from scratch. We need to build on what already works, develop feedback mechanisms between employers and colleges and learn from our mistakes. Call it incremental reform for radical transformation. And to be effective, reform must involve local government, trade unions, employers and colleges.

A genuine collaboration between providers, unions, employers and government

The development of vocational education policy needs to be a genuine collaboration between providers, unions, employers and government. The best vocational education will provide a clear pathway into work. Firms need to make an active contribution in meeting their need for skills. Collaboration will better integrate vocational education into business development and industrial strategy.

When John Major turned polytechnics into universities, they lost a unique role and gained status in name only. Our post-1992 universities and degree-awarding colleges could lead a vocational reformation, bringing together academic and technical education, theory and practice.

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We could bring status and prestige to vocational education by incorporating law colleges and teaching hospitals, along with FE and university technical colleges.

What are law conversion courses or a medical degree if not vocational qualifications?

Law and medicine are ancient and prestigious vocations. They combine philosophy, shared knowledge and practical skills. So too do midwifery and paramedic pre-hospital care, engineering and programming. We have doctors of philosophy, so why not the honoured status of master craftsman and craftswoman?

We should provide the guilds and national colleges of skilled work and professions with greater degrees of professional autonomy and status. I would like to see more National and Royal Colleges in the next 20 years that honour the labour, self-organisation and commitment of workers be they in retail, care or digital technology. 

Vocational education will be a priority within Labour’s National Education Service. It will extend knowledge and learning into all parts of society.

Instead of the knowledge economy being confined to the elites and rewarding small groups of workers, vocational education will open up its benefits and potential to the whole society that it serves.

Angela Rayner, Shadow Secretary of State for Education

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