John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
Gillian Keegan’s Conference presentation on degree apprenticeships was a rare and welcome triumph. This new route to graduate status avoids the debt that is a burden to young people and the government alike. The long-term costs of the current system are closer to those of the pandemic than to the folly of HS2. In March, the House of Commons Library estimated current debt at £206 billion, rising to £460 billion, at current prices, by the 2040s.
These sums reflect the enormous difficulty of getting the money back and the usurious interest rates charged to those whose parents cannot pay the fees out of their current income. As liability mounts, the quality of university education declines. Blair’s expansion involved admitting large numbers of students with lower academic qualifications. These students needed more support and closer contact with teachers, but in fact got less, with teaching time on many courses diluted and provided by less qualified and experienced lecturers, who could be hired and fired with little cost. It is now clear from the turmoil in the university sector, both that expansion has not worked, and that the loan system is not an effective way of financing higher education.
Those who bought into our opponents’ idea of a graduate tax should have thought of the consequences of their actions. Paying back debt as soon as they begin to earn a graduate-level salary – if they ever do – and suffering from excessive rents, is an unattractive combination. Why should these young people vote for us? Social engineering is not a Conservative principle, and it has blown up in our faces.
Keegan’s experience as a working-class Conservative, taking with both hands the opportunities she was offered by apprenticeship, shows how we should be moving. The neoliberal idea that everyone receiving training beyond the level of elementary education – even for moderately paid professions such as nursing and policing – should pay for it, has left us with serious skill shortages, and is leading anyone looking outside the top half-dozen universities to think hard about whether it is worth attending, One of my own recent students, encouraged by her sixth form college to go to university after distinctions in her BTec care courses, listened to her parents and me, decided not to mortgage her future, and undertook an apprenticeship instead. Keegan’s plans for degree-level extensions to apprenticeships will enable her to achieve her potential. This is Conservative thinking in action – equality of opportunity, and, dare I say it, levelling up. More, please, and quickly, starting with a review of Open University fees.
Our opponents are hamstrung on apprenticeship and training, as with all other areas of education, by their ideology. Harriet Harman objected to the middle classes having people trained “to be plumbers for them” – despite the rewards of that occupation, and this remains their problem with work-related education and training. As socialists, their arguments are overwhelmingly based on sociology rather than the intellectual processes involved in learning, and they do not hesitate to make equality their sole criterion. Left-leaning academics, and some Ofsted inspectors in the field of special educational needs, are promoting mixed ability teaching at all costs, even at the expense of failing to match teaching to what children need. The latest mantra, “keeping up, not catching up” in maths, in which everyone is expected to do the same work whether they understand it or not, is typical, and a note from HMI maths specialists that this may involve circumventing skills rather than developing them indicates the schism that underlies all of our debates on education. Anyone who doubts this should go to an FE college and work with the 16 year olds who have left school without the most basic skills in calculation.
As I said at the outset, Keegan’s triumph was rare as well as welcome. The practical, pragmatic approach to improvement that starts where we are, rather than where we would like to be, has not run through Government policy since 2010, and major errors have been made by listening to the likes of Dominic Cummings and others who have promoted policies, including forced academisation and politicised inspection, that have still to be shown to improve education at all. It may well be too late to save the next election, but we at least know how to do better next time.