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Two thirds of the way through party conference season: what’s the verdict on the Lib-Lab education policies?

From Nick Clegg: a promise to extend free school lunches to every child of infant school age, to ‘help create a level playing field when it counts most’.

From Ed Miliband: a promise that every primary school in the country will have the breakfast and after school clubs that ‘stressed out parents need’.

Is there anything wrong with these pledges?  They do at least pass the comprehension test: unlike various tax credit or financial wheezes, it’s easy to understand what the policy actually means – and it’s straightforward to calculate both the cost for the Treasury and the savings for cash-strapped working families (there being less of a saving for workless parents, since they already qualify for Free School Meals, and are less likely to need ‘wraparound’ childcare).

Whether or not they make a difference naturally depends on the aim: when the Deputy Prime Minister talks about ‘making social mobility the number one social policy objective’ of this Government, and then in the same breathe announces the free school meal giveaway, it certainly gives the impression that the policy announcement and policy objective are supposed to be connected.  For the One Nation Labour leader, the ambition is to show how Britain can ‘win the race to the top’, by unleashing the talents of Britain’s 12 million parents, and by preventing the ‘tragedy’ of wasted young lives for those school leavers who fail to make the transition to secure employment.

The problem with diverting scarce resources to provide free meals and care for the under tens is that it fails to address the major weakness in early years policy: namely, the failure to invest in professional-level training and qualifications for the early years workforce, which continues to prevent the hoped-for gains in children’s learning being realised by the time they start school (the modest proposal by Cathy Nutbrown to introduce a minimum requirement of upper secondary qualifications by 2022 being a long way away from a graduate profession). All the free school breakfasts and lunches in the world will not be enough to make up for five years of missed opportunity before children even start school.

If free breakfasts and lunches are supposed to be the solution for younger children, there is a common answer to the problem of youth unemployment.  For all the main parties – and the Conservatives are no exception – there is almost no ‘skills’ problem which cannot be solved by promising to increase the number of apprenticeships.  But there is no guarantee that apprenticeships will act as an engine for social mobility either. Analysis of the Labour Force Survey shows that apprentices are more likely to come from middle-income families than low-income – and advanced Apprenticeships are even more likely to be out of reach for the most disadvantaged groups.

There is, then, a growing gap between the shared political ambition – to create a fairer, more upwardly mobile society – and policy reality.  To be clear, there is nothing wrong with investing in apprenticeships (providing that employers in all sectors can be persuaded to take part); it is just that relying on apprenticeships to end the mismatch between young people’s skill levels and the demands of an ever-changing labour market is only setting a generation up for failure.

As I argue in an RSA think piece published today, neither Labour nor the Coalition have pledged to tackle the two systemic failures in pre-vocational education that urgently need to be addressed: the lack of progress in ‘raising the floor’ in basic and functional skills; and the continued pre-occupation with a narrow academic curriculum, which has squeezed out space for vital skills and capacities – thinking critically and creatively, emotional intelligence and working in collaboration.  There is no single solution to a problem as deeply entrenched as educational disadvantage, which obviously requires action outside the education system as well as inside; but investing in higher level skills and qualifications for all educators, whilst removing the barriers to a genuinely innovative and collaborative system, would be a good place to start.

Louise Bamfield is RSA Associate Director of Education and author of ‘Rebalancing the UK’s Education and Skills System: Transforming capacity for innovation and collaboration’.

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