We Must be Ambitious for All Our Young People

28/11/2012 17:54 GMT | Updated 28/01/2013 10:12 GMT

While we should never lapse into complacency, two major reports out this week show how a major public service - in this case education - can be transformed through sustained reform and targeted investment.

The Ofsted Annual Report shows the success of Labour's school improvement programme, including academies and bringing in high quality teachers and school leaders. Half a million more children are in good or better schools thanks to 13 years of a Labour Government. And the Pearson Learning Curve analysis uses data from the OECD, analysed by The Economist to show the UK has the second best education system in Europe, and sixth in the world.

Both these reports scotch the myth promoted by Michael Gove that school standards fell under Labour. The Education Secretary should stop running down our schools and our hard working teachers and pupils and instead build on the many success stories.

However, while there have been improvements overall, the Ofsted report does show serious issues in our education system in two areas - firstly, there is unacceptable variation in school quality between different parts of the country. And secondly, the quality of learning at some of our Further Education colleges still needs further improvement.

How can we address these major challenges to better prepare young people for the rigours of the modern economy?

Michael Gove suggestion is to create more free schools. While some of those schools may be good, you only have to look at Sweden, which created free schools, and brought in profit making schools, which Michael Gove advocates. They lie down in 21st place in the international league table, a full 15 places below the UK. Changing schools structures doesn't guarantee success.

What matters more is the quality of teaching and school leadership. That's why I believe we need to improve training and on-the-job development for teachers, expand schemes like Teach First to attract more high quality graduates into the profession, and look at ideas such as providing a rebate on teacher tuition fees if you agree to teach in a challenging school or a poorer part of the country.

I warned in a recent speech that an 'Arc of Underachievement' is holding back too many young people in some parts of the country. Ofsted has today confirmed this.

Even in the Prime Minister's own backyard of Oxfordshire, there are too many coasting schools. We need to learn from success stories like Wigan and Darlington to understand why other areas, like Derby and Doncaster, are less successful.

While Michael Gove is only interested in helping some types of schools, Labour want to ensure no school is left behind. That means strong schools working with weaker ones.

This approach happened with Labour's London Challenge, and the City Challenge in Greater Manchester, where standards rose. We need to learn the lessons from these programmes - which were about better school collaboration, targeting academies at areas of underperformance, and attracting better teachers and heads to challenging schools.

We should extend that approach to those parts of the country where too many schools are struggling.

Ofsted also warn of real problems in the Further Education sector. Not enough colleges are making the most of their students' potential. Colleges need to be better incentivised to ensure their students progress and the quality of teaching and learning is high, so young people get the skills and knowledge they need to compete in the modern economy. This will be an important first task of our One Nation skills taskforce being chaired by Professor Chris Husbands, which was launched this week.

Michael Gove last made a major speech on vocational education two years ago, which did little to reassure many that he takes practical and technical learning seriously. Since then, a Government-commissioned report on reforming vocational learning, written by Professor Alison Wolf, has gathered dust.

Labour believes we have to put an end to the notion that vocational education is somehow second best. We must be more ambitious for young people who do practical and technical courses. That means ending the revolving door of low qualifications which can hold them back.

Labour is calling for a gold standard qualification for young people to aim for - the Technical Baccalaureate. The Tech Bacc would comprise rigorous vocational courses, accredited by employers, a quality work experience placement, and all students doing Maths and English to age 18.

Employers understand the need to strengthen vocational learning, even if the Government doesn't. Business knows that vocational skills are crucial if we are to fill the jobs of the future.

As the CBI said last week, "A new gold standard vocational equivalent to A-levels has long been necessary to ensure that high quality non-academic routes get the recognition and differentiation they deserve."

Instead of meeting the needs of the modern economy and tackling the problems that face us today, this Government is preoccupied with turning the clock back in education. Labour understands that real reform in skills and training is needed if we are to build a One Nation education system that meets the needs of the 21st century.

That means being ambitious for all schools, and all young people - whatever routes they choose and wherever they live.