Corbyn is wrong to state that education is not about personal advancement

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Governments should empower individuals to lead fulfilling lives. This principle is a cornerstone of liberal ideology and nowhere is it more important than in education policy. Whilst in government, The Liberal Democrats empowered disadvantaged pupils by providing schools with extra money to give these individuals the same life chances as their more advantaged peers. We empowered skilled young people by expanding apprenticeships- a move which recognised the rich diversity of talent and ambition we have in our society. Our policies for empowering individuals through education continue to be one of our greatest strengths. But not everyone agrees that the purpose of education is to empower people.

In a recent article for Labour List Jeremy Corbyn asserted his view that “Education is not about personal advancement but is a collective good that benefits our society and our economy.” Most progressives would agree that a major objective of education is to benefit our society and our economy, however, to claim outright that education is not about personal advancement is a bold move. If he had said that education is not just (or not primarily) about personal advancement, there would be no issue. But that’s not what he said. His words unambiguously demonstrate that he has no ideological commitment to helping individuals improve and advance their own lives and reach their own aspirations through education. The Liberal Democrats by contrast are committed to this. We have no issue with both helping individuals advance their own lives and improving our society and our economy at the same time.

We understand that gaps in attainment start at a young age and that those who get left behind have reduced life chances. That is why The Liberal Democrats want to increase the Early Years Pupil Premium and raise the quality of early years provision by recruiting more qualified Early Years teachers. This policy has the potential to improve productivity in our economy. But, even if the benefits were not felt by society and the economy as a whole, the policy would be fantastically progressive because it would empower poorer pupils and help give them the same chances in life as others in society.

Our policy to improve the quality of vocational education, careers advice and skills for entrepreneurship and self-employment will certainly help society and the economy. The Office for National Statistics have found that the number of self-employed people rose by over 20% between 2008 and 2015, and that this upward trend is continuing. We need people to have the skills to start successful businesses and create wealth and jobs in our economy. But we also want to ensure that individuals gains these skills in school so that they can lead their own fulfilling lives.

Corbyn is wrong to state that education is not about personal advancement. The primary goal of education should be to empower individuals to lead fulfilling lives. As liberals, we understand this. We also understand that society and the economy both benefit when individuals are empowered and invested in.

* Thomas Moule is a Liberal Democrat member in Hackney who writes an education policy blog.

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22 Comments

  • Oliver Craven 31st Oct '17 - 3:52pm

    Definitely agree. I also see a considerable role for technology in reducing the time teachers spend on the least productive activities, that is marking and the initial teaching of material, leaving much more time for helping individuals as and when needed.

  • Nonconformistradical 31st Oct '17 - 6:01pm

    “His words unambiguously demonstrate that he has no ideological commitment to helping individuals improve and advance their own lives and reach their own aspirations through education.”

    A fundamental difference between liberals and socialists

  • Sorry, Mr Moule, but you really shouldn’t pick out one sentence from a much longer article and inflate it into what our Nonconformistradical colleague describes as a fundamental difference between liberals and socialists.

    Do you object to this sentence ? “While slashing college funding, George Osborne boasts of increasing apprenticeships. Yet too many are low quality, failing to give young people the transferable skills they need to get on.”

    “they need to get on”……….. Yes, it’s from the same article……which I suggest everyone should read in full before rushing to judgement. Sadly, I’ve noticed a rather sad growing tendency on LDV to have a ‘Corbyn bash’ rather than deal with matters in an intellectually honest way.

    I would have thought a basic principle of liberalism is intellectual honesty rather than selective cherry picking.

  • Laurence Cox 31st Oct '17 - 7:12pm

    @David Raw. Quite right, the previous paragraph makes it clear that Corbyn is not ignoring the advantages to individuals of better training:

    “When we fail to invest in people their potential is wasted and our economy underperforms. The more we empower people with the skills they need to succeed the stronger the economy we build.”

  • Reading the Labour List article, I think the writer expressed themselves poorly.
    We as a society provide Education to benefit society, not to enrich some individuals and thus give access based on merit rather than birth and parental ability to pay.

    However, this doesn’t us (as a society) using people’s wired in desire for personal development and advancement to become more educated (ie. use the Education system we have provided) and then (as a society) providing employment that uses those skills and knowledge for the benefit of our society.

    So I side with David Raw and Laurence Cox on this point.

  • Peter Watson 31st Oct '17 - 9:19pm

    “In a recent article for Labour List”
    The article is not particularly recent and was published in July 2015 (https://labourlist.org/2015/07/education-is-a-collective-good-its-time-for-a-national-education-service/) when Corbyn was first campaigning to become leader of the Labour party.
    As an aside, I’ve not visited LabourList before googling for the original article (which had a different title: “Education is a collective good – it’s time for a National Education Service”) and I was struck by the below-the-line comments. This was partly because I wondered if the first was from the same Peter Martin whose comments I enjoy reading on this site, but also I was surprised by the relatively measured nature of the thread since comments on this site had given me the impression that LabourList was a hotbed of anger and savagery. I might have to explore the site further.

  • Thomas Moule 1st Nov '17 - 8:15am

    The main argument is a positive one about the liberal principle of empowering individuals, which in turn enriches society. This principle manifests itself in Lib Dem education policies like the ones I mention. Another example would be progress 8. Before this policy we had a rigid c/d borderline and the incentives existed for schools to just get pupils safely over the threshold and stop there. Now everyone’s progress is equally important. It’s individualised and equalising- liberalism in a nutshell.

  • Thomas Moule 1st Nov '17 - 8:15am

    There is a lot of crossover between empowering individuals and enriching society, which probably has something to do with the fact that individuals make up society. But Corbyn’s comments betray his underlying value that there is something avaricious about personal advancement.

    What does this value tell you about Corbyn’s underlying feelings on social mobility, for instance. It has become popular in some circles to demonise social mobility, with articles such as “https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/aug/01/labour-social-mobility-educational-goal-schools and https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/social-mobility-not-point-education. Although to my knowledge Corbyn has never specifically said he is against social mobility, how can we have faith that he wants an education that is aspirational for everyone if he is so against personal advancement. Redistributing opportunity is not primarily for society or the economy, it is for the advancement of individuals who would otherwise have been disadvantaged by circumstance.

  • Thomas Moule 1st Nov '17 - 8:16am

    Responding specifically to the 5th comment “We as a society provide Education to benefit society, not to enrich some individuals and thus give access based on merit rather than birth and parental ability to pay.” I am not sure if there needs to be an extra comma somewhere because it seems that you are arguing against merit and for birth rights. Which brings me nicely to a key point about Corbyn’s closest allies. I count at least 4 of his innermost circle (I won’t name names as this is about principle not personality) that sent their kids to grammar/private schools. Surely they made these decisions to advance their own kids’ lives.

    I think those of us who actually believe in inclusive education should expect the same levels of aspiration for everyone. Lib Dem policies like progress 8, pupil premium and early years support are aspirational, they empower individuals and they believe in the importance of personal advancement.

  • I have no problems with intellectual honesty but I am one with David Raw in warning against Corbyn bashing for sound political reasons. In the current climate JC is seen as the best bet for being anti-Tory. Thus in the eyes of many if you attack him you must be a Tory. There is a strong populist component in his popularity and as we learned with UKIP in their glory days there is no easy electoral squeeze on populism. Now we should be learning from the tactics of Mr Corbyn’s enemies within his own party inside and outside parliament. They are content to remain silent pro tem, sheltering under the leader’s popularity and reducing scrutiny of Labour’s chronic divisions. While there are plenty of others around to do the Corbyn bashing, Lib Dems should be excoriating Labour for backing the Tories on leaving the EU and their hypocrisy in pretending that they offer a fundamentally different policy.

  • Sue Sutherland 1st Nov '17 - 2:34pm

    I can absolutely see Thomas Moule’s perspective on this. To me the whole Corbyn article reads as an essay on how education can be used to provide the workforce that the state decides is necessary. This sounds like treating people as if they’re inanimate objects on a production line.
    But then, I see Corbyn’s slogan “For the Many not the Few” as being inherently illiberal and very Socialist. Labour has always stood up for the Many in the workforce who historically had powerful Trade Unions ( steel and coal) rather than the few who didn’t ( Cornish Tin Miners).
    We need the Few, as defined by Corbyn, to work with us to improve conditions for everyone and to encourage a new group of those who belong to the Few to emerge to the benefit of all. Isn’t that the difference between we Lib Dems and Corbyn’s version of Labour? Don’t we want to protect the Few, in whatever shape or form, against conformity to the grey mass of a Socialist Utopia?
    Of course we agree with Labour that the present privileged Few should not be able to use the rest of us for their own benefit and greed for generations, but don’t we need talented individuals to rise to the top of each generation for all of us to thrive?

  • Arthur Trussel 1st Nov '17 - 2:56pm

    Mr Corbyn’s words sound like he just wants to make “cogs” for the socialist machine
    As the “Prisoner” say’s: “I am not a number(cog) I’m a free man”

  • Sue Sutherland 1st Nov ’17 – 2:34pm,

    To try and equate Corby’s ‘few’ with Cornish tin miners is silly, and you know it is silly..
    Corbyn’s few are the so called elite; the 1% so beloved by the Tories…

    When there is so much we, as a party, have in common with Corbyn/Labour the amount of time spent trying to find differences (Thomas Moule’s determination to take sentences out of context is a prime example) does this party no favours..

  • Julian Tisi 1st Nov '17 - 3:20pm

    “In the current climate JC is seen as the best bet for being anti-Tory. Thus in the eyes of many if you attack him you must be a Tory.”

    Our challenge as a party has always been and continues to be to mark out a distinctive path for ourselves which is neither Tory nor Labour. If we were to only attack Labour, we could be lazily described as pro-Tory. If we were to only attack the Tories, we could be lazily described as pro-Labour. Few in our party ever have a problem with us attacking the Tories, as we do frequently. But some seem to have a big problem when we attack Labour. The idea that to do so makes us anti Tory is just lazy tribal politics – those who see anyone attacking Corbyn as Tories are probably not ever going to be our supporters, so let’s not worry about annoying them.

    The key point of the article – that Corbyn doesn’t particularly care about individual advancement – is a fair one. There are numerous other examples of him sneering at the aspirational middle – and it’s they who would bear the brunt of his tax and spend policies. It’s only right to point this out.

  • Arthur Trussel 1st Nov '17 - 3:26pm

    Well said Sue, if you don’t mind I’ve used a lot of your words as part of something I’ve put on my FB page. 🙂

  • @Thomas Moule – thanks for the kind correction, rescanning the sentence I think this corrects the mistake you observed:

    “We as a society provide Education to benefit society and not to enrich some individuals; thus giving access based on merit, rather than birth and parental ability to pay.”

    @Sue Sutherland – “but don’t we need talented individuals to rise to the top of each generation for all of us to thrive?”

    In support of this statement: I offer the speaker from circa 28:20:
    https://northamptonshire.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/279880
    FYI the slogan on the T-shirt was “Young and Powerful”.

  • Peter Watson 1st Nov '17 - 4:35pm

    @Julian Tisi “Few in our party ever have a problem with us attacking the Tories, as we do frequently.”
    It is not very frequent, particularly when not about Brexit.
    Up to 2010 Lib Dems appeared to attack Labour much more than the Tories for the obvious (and sensible) reason that Labour was in government.
    From 2010 to 2015 Lib Dems appeared to attack Labour but not the Tories for the obvious (but less sensible) reason that Lib Dems were in government.
    Since 2015 Lib Dems appear to attack Labour more than the Tories for a mish-mash of reasons; possibly in an attempt to depict themselves as a better opposition to the Tories (perverse really: demonstrate that by opposing the Tories), possibly because it is difficult to attack the Tories on their record before 2015, possibly because there is a genuine hatred for what Corbyn is perceived to represent compared to a milder disapproval of other politicians.

    Consequently the impression has been given and reinforced over a very long period, even since 2015, that the Lib Dems’ political identity is very much as a moderate wing of the Conservative party, e.g. Tories for equal marriage, Tories for Remain, Tories for smoking cannabis, etc. Even if the non-Brexit attacks on other parties are now more evenly spread, that might not be enough to change the perception that has built up.

    This article is an example of the sort of anti-Corbyn assault that leaves it unclear what Lib Dems actually stand for. Removing the 6 words “is not about personal advancement but” from Corbyn’s article (or add the single word “just”), how many of the other 800 words do Lib Dems disagree with, and why? If Lib Dems believe in “helping individuals advance their own lives and improving our society and our economy at the same time” while Corbyn believes “the more we empower people with the skills they need to succeed the stronger the economy we build” then surely you should be looking for opportunities to work together and deliver what you both want.

  • Sue Sutherland 1st Nov '17 - 9:03pm

    Thank you Arthur, no problem.
    Expats. My point is that Labour instinctively supports the mass against the few, however the few are described because that is where they see power. Liberals don’t do this. In this case Corbyn is identifying the few as the elite. Again this is where we differ from Socialists, we recognise that society needs the exceptional and that we all benefit from encouraging their abilities, whatever form they take. The problem at the moment is that the once exceptional have been allowed to become an entrenched elite, which operates against the best interests of society. I trust Vince Cable to sort that out not Jeremy Corbyn. In practice Communism just changed one fixed elite for another one.

  • Andrew McCaig 1st Nov '17 - 9:13pm

    I have to say that this particular topic seems an odd one to pick to criticise Corbyn… Corbyn is a master of warm words, almost as much as Tony Blair, but picking out one sentence amongst the plethora of warm words is a bit unfair. Mostly we will just have to wait to see Corbyn enjoy the compromises and disappointments of office to see what he really means.
    However there is one area where we can see the real priorities. The 2017 “fully costed” Labour manifesto failed to find the money to reverse the post-2015 Tory benefit cuts. These cuts are currently being rolled into Universal Credit, but Corbyn does not focus on this aspect of the new system. Most Labour MPs abstained when these cuts were first introduced (here Corbyn has changed his mind, of course, coming into line with his MPs)
    In contrast, Corbyn did find the money to reduce student fees to zero, and “deal with” graduate debt. Mostly this is a middle class give away, whatever its merits. There are of course many middle class graduates who vote and relatively few of the poorest benefit recipients who vote. That is evidently what he means by “for the many not the few” and I suspect when push comes to shove the same will prove true about education…

  • While I agree that education should be about empowering individuals to lead fulfilling lives, this does not mean that education automatically leads to personal advancement. The 11 plus once gave opportunities to those who passed the test at 11 for personal advancement. This was recognised by the Conservatives whose mantra was the rejection of equality and the espousal of equality of opportunities.

    We need to remember that education is vital for everyone but not everyone can be educated to the same level and know the same things as everyone else. Therefore education cannot create equality of outcome. We need to ensure education and training are available to everyone for their whole life so they can reach their full potential and ensure that economic inequalities are reduced so that no one has restrictions placed on how fulfilling their lives can be.

    @ Julian Tisi

    There are some good reasons for being against Labour and particularly Corbyn bashing. We do best when Labour does well, therefore being against Labour may decrease their support and so ours; trying to point out Corbyn is not suitable to be Prime Minister may dissuade people from voting Labour and Liberal Democrat. I do not recall us doing this in 1996-97 when we increased our MPs from 26 (at dissolution) to 46.

  • Sue Sutherland 1st Nov ’17 – 9:03pm
    Thank you Arthur, no problem.
    Expats. My point is that Labour instinctively supports the mass against the few, however the few are described because that is where they see power. Liberals don’t do this. In this case Corbyn is identifying the few as the elite. Again this is where we differ from Socialists, we recognise that society needs the exceptional and that we all benefit from encouraging their abilities, whatever form they take. The problem at the moment is that the once exceptional have been allowed to become an entrenched elite, which operates against the best interests of society. I trust Vince Cable to sort that out not Jeremy Corbyn. In practice Communism just changed one fixed elite for another one……

    Why use your own word ‘mass’ instead of Corbyn’s ‘many’; more rewriting of his words?
    First you support the exceptional, then you want to change the ‘entrenched elite’..that is exactly what Corbyn’s argument….

    As for Vince sorting things out; that won’t happen …And, in keeping with LDV policy you end up by calling Corbyn, whose policies would be considered mainstream in most European countries, a communist….

    I despair of this party!

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Nov '17 - 6:02pm

    The love of learning can be a value in itself though for most people education must have a purpose beyond that. Whether it is self advancement, a more fulfilled life or helping others, it will have a primary and subsidiary purposes. I feel better when I have mastered some skill or subject and even better if it fulfils some higher purpose.

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