How a National Education Service could help to break down class divisions


The EU Referendum of 2016 was never a political football match. In spite of the tone that runs through the debate, there are no clear-cut winners or losers in this battle. If Britain ends up better off after Brexit, then everyone wins – Remainers and Leave supporters alike.

But nobody wins if the UK ends up in a worse state than it is now. Ordinary people and ordinary workers will suffer in the event of a low-tax, low-wage, increasingly privatised and deregulated environment. Such an environment would not facilitate any form of taking back control. Nor would it require a skilled and educated workforce.

Large corporations, strengthened by a trade deal agreed on their terms, could end up controlling a low-paid, low-skilled workforce operating in warehouse conditions. On top of that, we are going to see a considerable brain drain, if or when Britain leaves the EU.

Already, in the present climate of uncertainty about workers’ rights, our schools, hospitals, universities, creative industries and many more sectors are in danger of haemorrhaging invaluable expertise and experience.

With recent Conservative Party talk of setting a lower limit of 50K salaries for incoming skilled workers, the UK risks losing many talented individuals without anybody to replace them. That is why even those of us who never wanted to see Brexit happen need to start planning for the long-term consequences.

Education is going to be a key area – one which might come to define the soul of a “Britain Yet-To-Be”. Are we on a journey towards an increasingly privatised environment in which all of our citizens – even students and hospital patients – are turned into consumers? Or are we at a precipice of a different kind – one that requires a radical leap into a whole new, more equitable society?

An interesting take on that subject emerged at the recent Labour Party Conference. There the talk was not of 50K salaries, but of creating environments that give equal opportunity to everyone, effectively removing borders that have long existed within UK higher education.

Angela Rayner, the shadow secretary of state for education, advocated the creation of a “National Education Service” shaped by the same principles upon which the NHS was founded.

Within this there would be an emphasis upon lifelong learning and the creation of environments shaped around present and future societal needs. At the moment Britain is lagging behind other places when it comes to digital skills and success in STEM subjects(science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for example.

Taking steps towards a brain drain? Shutterstock

Young people are not getting access to, or funding for, the vocational courses they might have attended in the past if they didn’t go to university. This not only creates a skills gap, but is also creating real potential for social disconnect.

Mixed education

Blurring the boundaries of further and higher education would certainly change the nature of academia. Some critics might argue that we are in danger of moving towards a state where degrees are devalued because everybody has one. Today’s BA qualification becomes yesterday’s A level, today’s Masters becomes yesterday’s BA.

But this is to miss the point of the aspiration for a National Education Service. The goal is not to force students down a degree route at the expense of vocational courses. Instead the ambition is to radically alter the relationships that educational institutions have with one another. Already many higher education institutions (including the one I work for) are improving the links they have with schools, and want to expand this further.

A National Education Service would allow them to do this. More than that, it would help to break down class divisions and the notion of there being a hierarchy within education and employment. Imagine a country where the plumbers studied in the same institutions as the pharmacists while the hairdressers interacted with those seeking to become human resource managers and the midwives or mechanics mixed with the doctors and the engineers.

Such a scenario might actually create a society that can survive the derailment of Brexit, if it happens. Sadly I don’t trust the present managers of the situation to achieve this because, at heart, they don’t genuinely accept that nobody wins unless everybody wins. But in truth everyone is singing to the same tune, whichever political tribe they are part of – and that’s the tune of a ticking clock.

Author Bio: Paul Breen is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Westminster