Liam Shields, Lecturer in Political Theory at The University of Manchester examines the Labour Party’s manifesto promise to establish a life-long National Education Service which could enhance equality of opportunity throughout the UK.
- This policy has many parallels with the NHS and the emphasis on opportunities for educational enrichment beyond “school-age” is striking.
- By including the restoration of the arts pupil premium this policy could make available opportunities for all to not only discover their talents and interests, whatever their age, but also build on them without being inhibited by cost.
- A National Education Service could help to restore educational opportunity for those who missed out on it first time round.
Labour will fight the upcoming general election on 10 pledges. One of these is the idea of a National Education Service the ambition of which is “to deliver high quality education for all throughout our lives” to meet changing training and educational needs. This idea was first trailed at the party conference in September 2016 and Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner gave several interviews on the policy on the 10th May 2017. Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Rayner said that “Our plan, which is a really exciting plan, is the national education service, and it is deliberately mirrored to the National Health Service, because I believe that our education service will be transformative like the health service.”
This parallel with the NHS is one of the distinctive features of the proposal and the emphasis on providing more opportunities for educational enrichment beyond “school-age” is striking. This policy marks a possible departure from recent trends with adult education budgets having been cut and pressures on schools have led to threats to narrow the curriculum, which in turn threaten to reduce opportunities for individuals to develop their skills and their interests through education and training.
To evaluate policy and actions in terms of equality of opportunity we must have a clear definition of it that specifies an attractive ideal we would want our society to realise.
For many people equality of opportunity is realised when jobs and advantageous positions, like jobs and university places, are awarded on the basis of merit. In other words, the best able or qualified should get the position regardless of race, sex of socio-economic background. Although this definition is quite clear, this meritocratic view of equality of opportunity has an important flaw: it fails to acknowledge that we have unequal opportunities to develop our talents and fulfil our potential to become the most meritorious for any particular position, for example, through inequalities in schooling. When those from disadvantaged backgrounds with great underlying talent have much worse prospects than those from privileged backgrounds with the same level of underlying talent, the society they live in falls short of equality of opportunity. So for an attractive account of equality of opportunity we must look further.
In response to this defect, American political philosopher John Rawls devised what he called Fair Equality of Opportunity. Rawls claims equality of opportunity is realised when those with equal underlying talent and ambition should have equal prospects for success, regardless of their economic or family background. In other words, Rawls saw inequality in economic and family background as something that can, but should not, hold back talented disadvantaged people when compared with their privileged counterparts.
Equality of opportunity in education
Although it corrects a defect in meritocratic equality of opportunity, there are two problems with Fair Equality of Opportunity.
- It is very hard to identify underlying or natural talent levels and certainly requiring employers to hire on that basis would be impractical.
- Socialisation greatly affects our levels of ambition, particularly in career and post-16 educational choices. Far fewer people from disadvantaged backgrounds choose to apply to university and their first experiences of school can put them off pursuing further training and educational opportunities.
In response to this, we should agree that any attractive account of equality of opportunity should be concerned that everyone is provided with a sufficient opportunity to identify their underlying talents and their interests. Without such opportunities the inequalities can remain hard to detect and therefore hard to correct. Moreover, unless everyone is given a real opportunity to develop some of their talents and to uncover others, their future educational and training choices are ill-informed. If they end up worse off than others because of that, this is unfair. Taking this commitment seriously, we can say that an attractive account of equality of opportunity will, at least, ensure that everyone has a sufficient opportunity to discover and develop their natural talents and interests so that they can form their ambitions based on what accurate knowledge of what they are truly capable of and compete on fair terms with others for advantageous positions.
What does this mean for educational policy?
Sufficient opportunity means having a broad curriculum for everyone. A narrow curriculum focused on only sciences or arts or languages denies people an opportunity to examine their own talents and interests in certain areas. Our talents often inform our choice or work and our hobbies. Knowing of our talents can enrich our lives. Until we know what our talents are and have experienced a wide range of learning activities, we cannot make sensible judgements about which talents to develop further and what interests to pursue and meritocratic competitions cannot be fair. For this reason, cuts to arts funding and narrowing of the curriculum sets back sufficient opportunity. A National Education Service, including restoration of the arts pupil premium, could make available opportunities for all to not only discover their talents and interests, whatever their age, but also build on them without being inhibited by cost.
Benefits of a National Education Service
Importantly, many adults have been deprived of a sufficient opportunity to explore educational interests and discover their underlying talents by compulsory pre-16 education. A life-long National Education Service could help to restore that opportunity for those who originally missed out on it. Those whose first educational experiences were demotivating and dispiriting, those who were told they were stupid or untalented, should always have an opportunity to develop a love of learning and uncover their potential.
Sufficient opportunities for all are important for equality of opportunity. Without them meritocratic competition for jobs, which is so widely practised, cannot be fair and it is only once we have experienced a wide range of educational pursuits can be make intelligent decisions about what to pursue further and what our interests are. A National Education Service promises to realise sufficient opportunity and thereby promote equality of opportunity through making training accessible for everyone no matter their background or stage of life.