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Why Keir Starmer should be preparing Labour for August 13th

Labour leader Keir Starmer. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA - Credit: PA

The leader of the opposition should use results day as one of his first opportunities to connect with young voters, argues MARTYN SLOMAN.

Mainstream Labour members have every reason to be delighted with the Party’s direction of travel. Keir Starmer’s thoughtful and intelligent approach, and the absence of evidence of any past indiscretions on his part, are more than enough to make us optimistic. After 100 days of his leadership, however, there is a recognition that more will be required soon. Being an effective opposition is a start, but when and where will the new Labour leadership indicate the sort of changes they would implement to create a fairer society post-pandemic?

Most Labour supporters will give Kier Starmer time; they appreciate that he needs to be allowed to pick his moment. The wisest counsel for an opposition when the Government is making serious mistakes is to offer targeted criticism and wait as events unfold. We will shortly face the disastrous consequences of Brexit, but this will not be an occasion for a sustained attack until Spring next year. So, is it steady as you go until then?

In my view there is a much earlier opportunity beckoning. Thursday 13th August, 2020 will offer an occasion for the new Labour leadership to signal the sort of radical politics that they can offer. For readers who have 17 or 18-year-old school children this date will already be marked with a red circle and an asterisk on the kitchen calendar. This is the day when the ‘calculated grades’ of A-levels in England and Wales are published and university places allocated. This year Covid has prevented examinations from taking place: results, which will be issued with every bit as much formality as in previous years, will be based on the predictions from schools modified by the exam boards within a framework specified by the regulatory bodies. Earlier this month the Commons Education Committee produced an alarming report, pointing to the difficulties involved, and arguing that disadvantaged and ethnic minority pupils face particular risks form the possibility of unconscious bias.

Indeed they could. The whole process is fraught with difficulty so expect a political furore. Every school will want its pupils to succeed. Parents paying £13,903 per term at Winchester are hardly likely to remain silent if their child is given a ‘calculated’ grade which fails to secure the place at Christ Church. Expect The Times to be full of letters decrying ‘social engineering’. Parents at our local Norfolk Comprehensive may be equally disappointed but may not have the same confidence in articulating their indignation.

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What will give this annual event an even higher profile is not just the unique problem of ‘calculated grades’ but that the results will appear at a time of dreadful job prospects for young people. Here is a real opportunity for progressive and original thinking from a revived Labour Party. We should argue for both a restructuring of the qualifications system and a recalibration of entry into the workforce.

The restructuring should not be confused with a demand for more apprenticeship places – an annual event whose refrain goes ‘too many people are going to university these days’. In practice, for over a decade, the apprenticeship debate has been no more than a bidding war of numbers, between the two major parties without any prospect of delivery. Immediately before the last General Election, Jeremy Corbyn fatuously promised the creation of 320,000 green apprenticeships, a figure wholly without any basis in reality.

The term apprenticeships has become an evocative throwback to the days when a ‘trade’ was an alternative to an education. In today’s more complex economy skills are required in all jobs at all levels and over a lifetime. Employers will train if they see the need; if a subsidy is available, they will take advantage of it. If this means they have to label the training that takes place as an apprenticeship they will do so.

Rather than setting undeliverable targets on apprenticeships we need to take the debate to a higher level. We should have the courage to give today’s young people a firm and irrevocable commitment that we will endeavour to give them an opportunity to develop over their skills and hence employment prospects over their life time. This is, of course inextricably linked with a return to full employment – however that is interpreted in today’s knowledge-driven and service-led economy. It is an aspiration for the long-term.

What I would like to see on August 13th is two first steps: a commitment to the reform of qualifications and a move to a new contract with our young people.

The reform of qualifications is long overdue and must involve the end of A-levels. Ironically Labour has had the blue print ready since the Tomlinson Report was published in 2004 . A high-profile Working Group for 14–19 Reform under the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Mike Tomlinson, recommended replacing GCSEs, the academic A-levels examination, and vocational qualifications with a new single diploma over a ten-year period of reform. Creating a ladder for the ambitious and motivated by facilitating the transition between different qualifications was something that attracted considerable support amongst the educational community. It would be the key first step in creating an over-arching framework of qualifications that would allow people to progress at any stage in their careers, whatever their age and starting point. Sadly, in the run up to a general election the Blair Government, rejected the idea of an overarching diploma system and instead chose to reform existing qualifications – a decision was partly driven by the desire to placate the Confederation of British Industry. A generation of school-leavers later we are no further forward and have maintained the sharp division between academic and vocational qualifications.

My second suggestion for an August 13th announcement is less specific but would offer a powerful signal of intent. We all now recognise that this current generation of school-leavers have a worse deal than any of their post-war predecessors. I suggest that we should offer them a new psychological contract. Here is my articulation:

We recognise, and expect you to recognise, that personal learning and development takes place through work. We want to give you every opportunity to undertake that learning in what we know to be a changing economic and employment climate. We expect you to grasp the work opportunities that are made available to you. However, we recognise that you are young: it will take you time to appreciate your strengths and weaknesses and to develop the judgment needed in the workplace. You will make mistakes. Our promise to you is that we will be honest about the challenges you face, we will endeavour to give you the support and information you need to make sensible decisions, and we will try to ensure to give you the support and information you need to make sensible decisions, and we will try to ensure that you are not exploited in the workplace.

There would be much work required to move beyond a general statement and to develop the specific policies that would make it a reality. However, a declaration of this sort on August 13th could mark the beginning of a long-term programme of social change and transition. Importantly it could get us away from the sterile and pointless debates that will dominate the headlines that day. Labour under Keir Starmer will need to raise its game and this is a first opportunity to show that it is willing and capable of doing so.

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