Politicians give speeches all the time, but with differing levels of significance. Can you think of a genuinely important political speech given by a minister this week?
Maybe your answer is Rishi Sunak’s fiscal statement, and I’m not going to suggest that speech isn’t a big deal. It is.
But I am going to make the case for a speech given today by Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary. The speech was to the Social Market Foundation, the think-tank I run, so I obviously have an interest here.
Nonetheless, I think Williamson’s speech deserves to be seen as a big deal. While Sunak had important things to say on important issues which are talked about a lot, Williamson’s speech is about people that don’t get mentioned enough in politics: those who use further education and technical training.
As he points out, these people – who make up more than 50 per cent of the population – are too often forgotten in a national conversation dominated by those who went to university, whose kids will go to university and who assume that going to university is the ‘normal’ thing to do.
An old Westminster joke says that a minister could announce the start of World War III in a speech about further education and skills policy, and no-one would pay any attention – but this one had some newsworthy content. For instance, he had some fairly blunt words about recruitment when I discussed the speech with him, telling both public and private sector employers that the days of hiring only graduates must come to an end:
‘Not just within companies, not just within the private sector but right across the public sector as well, far too often we’re barring people from going for those jobs because it’s graduates only.’
Still, if Williamson gets headlines for the speech, it may well be for his words moving the Government ever further away from the (largely symbolic) target of 50 per cent of school-leavers going to university. If that is how the coverage of the speech goes, it would be a bit of a shame, though it would neatly illustrate the point that Westminster will always talk about university instead of the other areas of the education system.
Williamson, to his credit, was happy to call this what it is: snobbery.
‘It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really, they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment,’ he said.
And this is why I think that speech matters, or should matter. It’s not really about policy, it’s about culture. Britain has a cultural bias against non-university routes that does not accurately reflect their economic or social value, or the value of the people who attend FE colleges and have technical qualifications.
I worry about a political discourse and national conversation which rests on the premise that going to university is the normal thing to do, and that the people who don’t do A-levels and go on to HE are, well, 'Other People'.
My view is that the role of education as a dividing line and predictor of voting behaviour is under-discussed at Westminster. This isn’t just a question of hand-wringing sociology – it matters to the way our politics works and the outcomes we get from it. I don’t go quite so far as to conclude that Britain voted for Brexit because our culture undervalues and under-represents people who don’t go to university. But when looking at the data which shows educational attainment correlates strongly with referendum voting and, increasingly, with party support, there are clearly serious political consequences to ignoring and undervaluing that 50 per cent.
(As Rob Ford at Manchester University points out, educational divides in politics is not simply a factor of age as many people think. Younger voters with low education qualifications were as likely to vote Leave as older voters with low education levels.)
So, I’m glad to have hosted an Education Secretary who wants to talk about that cultural bias against non-university routes, just as I’d be glad to host any politician who wanted to talk about this.
It doesn’t mean I’m endorsing all of what Williamson has to say today – that’s not the role of the SMF as a cross-party think-tank. In particular, I would have concerns if a welcome move from Government to talk more about FE, technical and other non-university options was part of a zero-sum game where more support for FE comes at the expense of higher education. Supporting FE doesn’t have to mean bashing universities. There are indeed some reasoned criticisms to be made about parts of UK higher education, but I think we need to make those criticisms with great care.
More widely, while I’m keen for more political attention to be paid to FE and that other 50 per cent of students, that’s because I want to narrow the divisions between university and non-university people – not widen them. I’m not suggesting that Williamson is seeking to exploit that cultural gap, but I do worry that some of his Conservative colleagues see political mileage in aligning the Conservative party with non-graduate voters against what they present as a degree-educated elite who hold different values. If you want to turn politics into a culture war, educational attainment is a good line to dig your trenches along.
Instead of taking that approach, I hope that the Conservative party, like the Labour party, realises that its best interests are served by trying to assemble the biggest possible coalition of voters, appealing to both HE and FE people.
However that plays out, I think these issues will become more and more important to politics and policy in the next few years. The political, economic and social differences between those who go to university and those who do something else are some of the most important, yet under-explored cleavages in Britain today. As our economy evolves, they are likely to be even more important too.
Will those divides narrow, or widen? I don’t know, though I sincerely hope it’s the former. Either way, they will matter. And as more people – finally – come to see their importance, they may realise that even though Rishi Sunak’s fiscal fireworks have had the most attention this week, Gavin Williamson's speech makes important points too.
As for Williamson himself, he’s not the first education secretary to give a speech about the importance of skills and further education, and as he cheerily suggests, he won’t be the last. Talk is cheap on this issue.
But in at least one important regard, I think there’s something a little different about him and his speech. He might just be willing to walk the walk too.
Here’s what he had to say about his own family:
‘Some people say that further education and apprenticeships are for other people’s children.
Let me be clear: I don’t. I’d be delighted if my children went to college or did an apprenticeship.
In fact, as a Yorkshireman, I have to say there’d be something quite appealing about them learning and earning at the same time.’
A Cabinet minister who encourages his children not to go to university? Maybe things really are starting to change.