Forget One Nation Labour, Vocational Education Was the Star of Miliband's Conference Speech

03/10/2012 16:44 BST | Updated 03/12/2012 10:12 GMT

By all accounts, Miliband's speech to the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday was a good one. Removed from the shackles of a podium, he roamed the stage, no papers or autocue in sight. Significantly, he launched Labour's 'One Nation' philosophy; separating Miliband's Labour from Labour parties both New and old. Although the 'One Nation' philosophy which flowed through the speech was undoubtedly important, another significant vein ran through Miliband's speech; education and training.

The education theme started with Miliband's account of his own education at Haverstock School, a comprehensive school in North London. The film played before Miliband's big entrance showed his classmates talking about their time at school with young Ed, and in his speech Miliband went on to talk about how his school got him to where he is today. Of course, a big reason for mentioning this was to promote Miliband as a different type of politician, one more like you and me. A leader that understands, that is in touch; not like the 'public school-educated' Conservatives. Leaving aside questions of whether invoking notions of class in this way is helpful, the focus on Miliband's comprehensive education also set the scene for some big education policy announcements. Miliband's tale of a diverse comprehensive education led him to focus on the other 50%, the 50% of young people who will not necessarily follow the school to A Level to University pathway.

Education is not exactly an area lacking political and media coverage. Everyone remembers Tony Blair's famous 'education, education, education' line in his speech to the Labour Party conference in 1996. And if this summer taught us anything, it's that the media can always be relied upon to relentlessly cover any GCSE or A Level related story. The same cannot always be said for vocational education. When was the last time you remember reading a BBC article about a college, or even a broadsheet article on proposals to reform vocational qualifications? Compare that to the amount of coverage surrounding schools, or the media interest in even the slightest hint of reform to 'academic' qualifications. Apprenticeships may be gaining ground, but even so, the further education colleges and training providers that work with employers to provide them are hardly ever mentioned beyond the confines of specialist press.

This was what was surprising about Miliband's speech. Not only was education a big part of his 'One Nation' philosophy, but it was vocational education that took centre stage. Labour's TechBacc was arguably the biggest new announcement of the afternoon. Yes, Labour's repeal of the NHS Bill is a big announcement, but that has been floating around as policy for a little while.

It wasn't just Miliband's TechBacc, either, although a new vocational standard at 18 to rival A Levels and Gove's English Baccalaureate Certificate is undoubtedly 'A Big Thing' (I'm not going to go into how this might work alongside the already existing range of vocational qualifications; BTECs, NVQs and the like... I'd hope these things haven't simply been forgotten about and that this is part of a larger plan). Vocational education made an appearance in relation to a host of other areas of Government life. Take public procurement; under Labour, only those private sector companies that train apprentices will be awarded contracts. Take Labour's "new deal" for businesses, echoing the current coalition government's policy of 'employer ownership' of skills by giving businesses control over the money, standards and responsibility for skills training. Vocational education seemed to be inextricably linked to Labour's One Nation vision; as Miliband emphasised, "One Nation skills, One Nation economy".

I appreciate that there's a lot of detail to be worked out, that the plans are far from perfect, and that there's no guarantee of a Labour government in 2015 to act on this sentiment. But right now I'm just enjoying the 'prime-time' attention being given to vocational education and skills. With apprenticeships one of the flagship policies of the coalition government, I can't wait to see how the Conservatives will respond to this at their party conference next week.