In 1970, a young Guyanese woman stepped off a plane at Gatwick airport to begin a new life in London. Rose Lammy, my mother, had grown up in a small village on the banks of the Demerara river in Guyana, South America. She was attracted to Britain by the opportunities it offered, but arrived here unskilled and unsure of her prospects. She did, though, bring with her a relentless work ethic and a dedication to make a better life for herself.
Beginning work as a home help, she was soon encouraged to take an evening course in Pitman shorthand. Twice a week, she spent the evening at the local college, working to improve her typing speed. Mum eventually graduated with a City & Guilds certificate that hung proudly on our living room wall throughout my childhood. Thirty years later, she retired from her position as a manager at Haringey council, having worked her way up from lowly secretary to a managerial position.
We were never rich, but that one evening course gave her the chance to find a decent job and raise three children without having to do an equivalent number of jobs. It bought her time with us and gave her determination that, one day, her own children might reach the level of the men she was typing and filing for.
We can hardly expect Tesco to train checkout staff to become dental nurses
Britain today is a different country. The number of quality, skilled jobs in the middle of the labour market has been declining for decades, as semi-skilled jobs are shipped overseas and technology replaces manpower. There are now 1.2 million fewer people in skilled trades than 20 years ago. The jobs that used to bridge the bottom and top of the income scale – machine operators, clerks, secretarial assistants – have been quietly decimated. The result is that, for a young person growing up in Dagenham or Newcastle or Burnley, the prospects for a decent career are ever more limited. The dreams still exist, but the reality for millions becomes a life in low-paid, low-skilled work on shop floors or call centres.
In many areas, nearly half of all young people are currently in jobs for which they are overqualified. The middle rungs of the job ladder have fallen away, leaving the path to better-paid work out of reach. The idea of a vocation is vanishing as people increasingly take whatever work they can get.
The night schools that once provided thousands with the hope of a more prosperous future are mostly gone. In London, a handful remain, supplemented by a few smaller regional colleges providing a limited range of courses in the face of increasing financial constraints. The Manchester Mechanics Institute, which once paved the way in educating working-class men in maths and engineering, is now a conference centre. Many institutions no longer open in the evening, running daytime courses at times when those who need them most are working. The widespread availability of night schools for the working classes, and the culture of attending them, has gone – destroyed by a toxic combination of budget cuts and political neglect. I did a rough survey of England’s 366 further education colleges and only a handful were open past 10pm.
The result is that British firms have to look elsewhere to find skilled workers – South Africa, China, Australia, Poland and France, for example – while British people living right on their doorstep are left to fight for dead-end jobs with little hope of progression. This causes tensions within communities and angry rhetoric based on accusations of “immigrants taking our jobs”. No one dares to speak the truth: that immigrants are only taking the jobs because their governments have invested in educating and training their citizens more than Britain has.
For those with academic promise, Britain remains one of the best countries in which to live, with a wealth of world-beating universities and well-paid professional jobs. But those walking a more vocational path would be better off being born in Germany, India or Australia – countries that recognise the need for skills investment and lifelong learning.
British public debate is strangely quiet about this. Our political class obsesses over social mobility from one generation to the next – whether or not people are doing better than their parents did – but we rarely talk about those who are already in work and want to progress. Social mobility is now viewed almost entirely through the narrow lens of higher education, which is lauded as the great motor of social mobility, when it should be just one cylinder of an engine of aspiration. This perhaps reflects the background of most of today’s political and media class. Most went to university themselves; their focus is on helping others repeat their own journey.
When the conversation turns to adults, the question is always how to get people into work, not how to help people progress once they are in work. Job centres and welfare-to-work providers are rewarded for getting people off welfare rolls, regardless of whether they place people in dead-end jobs. Helping people find employment that could take them somewhere is not part of the job description. Increasingly, our adult learning system is oriented towards the same thing. Recent changes mean that for people over 24, training courses are only funded for those claiming out-of-work benefits. The moment the unemployed find a job, support is snatched away.
Successive governments, including the one I was a part of, have seriously neglected adult education. The New Labour doctrine that skills training was the responsibility of employers was flawed. The idea that employers should take on a bigger role ignores the reality that employers have no incentive to train staff to leave. We can hardly expect Tesco to train checkout staff to become dental nurses.
More than a million fewer adults now take part in classroom-based education than a decade ago – down by a third. As a result of the last government’s cuts to the adult skills budget in 2013/14, half a million fewer adults took part in government-funded adult learning compared with the year before.
Most of this needs political attention. In the last Labour government I served as a minister with responsibility for further and higher education. I soon learned, to my dismay, that an offhand comment about universities would command national media attention. Newspapers would print stories, university vice chancellors would make phone calls and Downing Street would swing into action. Further education, by contrast, was a minority occupation – something for the other 50% who do not occupy positions of power.
A new culture of adult education and a new generation of night schools would transform our labour force and our economy. I still have my mother’s City & Guilds certificate. It represents what can be achieved when people have the freedom to learn and fulfil their potential