When the limelight gets turned off

May 3, 1996

Education is emerging as the decisive election battleground. For Labour, like many left-wing parties, education has taken on a particular symbolic and practical importance. It is being presented not only as the main plank of economic policy, but also as proof that Labour can no longer be painted as against personal opportunity and upward mobility.

It is easy to understand why they are doing so. For much of the postwar period centre-left governments promised three things: economic growth; a rising social wage; industrial harmony. But these are now problematic. However much is said about social justice and economic efficiency, inexperienced oppositions will always find it hard to convince people about the prospects for higher growth. The social wage is even harder, given tax and spending constraints. And industrial harmony is no longer an issue.

Hence the search for a new base or big idea, and the enthusiasm with which some have made the case for constitutional reform, others for social cohesion, and in other countries for socialist nationalism (anti-big business, free trade, and foreigners).

But so far Labour's preferred option has been what can loosely be called individualist opportunity - the promise that government will so expand the educational opportunities open to people at all stages of their life so that not only will they be "equipped for change" but society and the economy will benefit too.

There can be no doubting the virtues of a more educated, aware and self-confident population. But it is far less clear whether it is wise in political or in policy terms to put quite so much weight on education. It is not just that the record of training is far poorer than often presented, or that the huge expansion in higher education has done little either to increase social mobility or to benefit the parties that presided over it. It is also that the emphasis on education may slightly misread the public mood.

It is far from obvious that the only role of government is to equip individuals to survive in this world through extra qualifications. Instead I suspect people draw a different conclusion from what is happening in the world around. Politics is not at the centre of people's thoughts and politicians are less than credible advocates of richer and more fulfilling lives. It becomes far more important that governments carry out their oldest role, namely the guarantee of a social order, whether that means safe streets, a reliable health service, safe food, stable institutions, and a degree of certainty about things like savings or jobs.

Modern Conservatism has lost sight of this. It is assertive on parts of social order (crime, family values) but quite uninterested in other parts (especially the more economic ones). As a result it has little sense of how much people want an insurance policy that there will be at least some things they can rely on. Labour's great opportunity may be to guarantee that government really will deliver on these, and to avoid the temptation to promise the earth, whatever this may mean.

Where does this leave education? Lifelong learning has many virtues, but it is not one of those essentials. It could be in the future, but against a backdrop of insecurity the main thing people will ask from government is not so much more opportunities as more insurance against risk. The lesson for the world of education is perhaps this. Enjoy being in the limelight, but also beware: at the moment education is being oversold, and the more it is oversold, the harder the swing of the pendulum will be when it comes.

Geoff Mulgan is director of Demos, the independent think tank.

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