In a post-covid world, high-quality education and training will be more important than ever. During this economic crisis, we will see many sectors shrink or disappear altogether.
Young people have had their schooling disrupted, older members of the workforce may have found themselves unemployed for the first time, and many people will find that the skills they have do not prepare them for the new economy.
Politicians have long promised to deliver a world-class education system in the UK. As a teacher before I entered Parliament, I am passionate about creating a cradle-to-grave service that values investment in childcare alongside fully-funded schools and a system of lifelong learning that ensures no one is barred from fulfilling their potential.
The early years sector plays a vital part in addressing inequality and helping to achieve equality of opportunity. At the last general election, it was the Liberal Democrats who offered the boldest and most ambitious programme of affordable childcare. In leading the development of those policies, I was clear that funding early years education is not only a way of providing firm foundations for starting school, it also enables parents to exercise greater choice.
We offered 35 hours a week of free childcare for every child aged two to four, and for children over nine months whose parents or guardians were in work. This would provide a framework that reduces inequality between children and gives parents more freedom to choose when and how they work, helping to grow a stronger skills base for our economy.
When it comes to school-age children, covid-19 has been a wake-up call: the true value of teachers has been demonstrated again and again by those forced to home-school. The absence of exams calls into question their value. Unless we innovate in the way we deliver school education we risk widening the gap between children from poorer and richer families. We need to focus on four key changes.
First, Whitehall cannot design the future. We need to unleash the talent and creativity of the teaching profession and of schools. We should establish a National Centre for Education Excellence to identify and spread best practice, complemented by introducing Voluntary Improvement Partnership areas through which towns and local groups of schools will have the right to test radical plans to improve education.
We must recognise that the teaching profession is the system’s most important resource. The government currently approaches the teaching workforce as something to be inspected, controlled and managed. Teachers are leaving the profession because they are overworked, stressed and undervalued. We must shift the emphasis to ensuring we have a teaching profession which is supported, trusted, and accountable.
The curriculum must change, too. An arm’s-length body, including representation from teachers, researchers, parents and students, must independently manage curriculum changes.
At the same time, we need to make the curriculum relevant to learners’ needs, enabling them to develop essential skills such as teamwork, creativity, speaking, problem-solving and resilience. A broad curriculum also means moving closer to a baccalaureate system and away from the false choice between vocational and academic education.
Finally, we need assessment which supports the needs of the child, not the needs of the school. Assessment currently focuses on exam league tables. It should focus on helping the child learn. Careers counselling and high-quality teacher-moderated assessment can replace high-stakes exams to help students reach the next phase.
With technology advancing, the urgent need to adapt the economy to the climate and nature emergencies, and the world of work rapidly changing, skills learned at 18 or 21 will no longer last a lifetime. We need to empower people to develop new skills so that they can thrive in the technologies and industries that are key to Britain’s economic future.
That is why I believe (and argued for at conference) that every adult in England should be able to access a personal budget to spend on education and training throughout their lives. They would choose from a range of approved education and training courses from providers regulated and monitored by the Office for Students and be able to draw on free careers guidance. At the same time government would work with industry to identify skills needs and to evaluate and certify courses.
The shock of covid-19 has highlighted the need – and presented the opportunity – to fundamentally rethink the way we approach education. For the benefit of parents, young people and our economy we cannot let this chance slip away.
Layla is a candidate for the Leadership of the Liberal Democrats and we will be carrying a blog by Ed Davey the other candidate shortly.