Sir Keir Starmer will pledge to smash the “class ceiling” if his party wins the next election, as he sets out plans to reform the education system in a major speech.
The Labour leader is expected to set a goal of half a million more children reaching their early learning targets by 2030 as he expands on the party’s intention to improve teaching for the under-fives.
Modernising the curriculum to abolish the “snobbery” surrounding the “academic/vocational divide” and ensure young people have a grounding in both will also form part of the mission, he will say.
In a speech in Gillingham on Thursday, the Labour leader is expected to warn the “class ceiling” is stifling opportunity for too many children across the country in terms of pay, promotions and work opportunities.
He will say: “There’s also something more pernicious. A pervasive idea, a barrier in our collective minds, that narrows our ambitions for working class children and says, sometimes with subtlety, sometimes to your face: this isn’t for you.
“Some people call it the ‘class ceiling’ – and that’s a good name for it. It’s about economic insecurity, structural and racial injustice – of course it is. But it’s also about a fundamental lack of respect.
“A snobbery that too often extends into adulthood. Raising its ugly head when it comes to inequalities at work – in pay, promotions, opportunities to progress.”
The speech will focus on the last of the five missions set by the party, which is well ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls – a pledge to “break down barriers to opportunity”.
It will include promises of skills reform to offer more chances for young people to engage in vocational learning and for adults to retrain in new areas, as well as to ensure every child has a specialist teacher in their classroom.
Sir Keir will also touch again upon pledges to change the planning system to build more houses so that 1.5 million people can become homeowners.
He is expected to say that including everyone in the new economy is vital if Britain is to succeed in a rapidly changing world, by preparing all children for a future that will be shaped by artificial intelligence, genomics, and technologies that “stretch the boundaries of our imagination”.
The Labour leader will say: “I’m serious – the sheep and goats mentality that’s always been there in English education. The ‘academic for my kids; vocational for your kids’ snobbery. This has no place in modern society. No connection to the jobs of the future.
“No – for our children to succeed, they need a grounding in both. Need skills and knowledge. Practical problem-solving and academic rigour. Curiosity and a love of learning, too – they’ve always been critical. But now – as the future rushes towards us.
“We also need a greater emphasis on creativity, on resilience, on emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt. On all the attributes – to put it starkly – that make us human, that distinguish us from learning machines.”
Education groups and unions welcomed Labour’s proposals, but said they must be matched by significant extra investment.
Paul Whiteman, National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) general secretary, said: “A child’s background should never determine their opportunities in life, but inequalities have been exacerbated over the last decade by funding cuts to schools and other public services, the pandemic, and now the cost of living crisis. It is therefore positive to see that Labour will put tackling inequality at the heart of their education policy.
“There is no doubt that schools can play a vital role in helping children to thrive no matter what their background, but they need the appropriate resources to do so. Fixing the current recruitment and retention crisis has to be an urgent priority and it is essential that the next government makes teaching and school leadership an attractive proposition once again and gets to grips with the factors driving so many out of the profession.
“However, inequalities are deeply entrenched in society, and if these ambitions are to be fulfilled, significant additional investment will be needed not only in education, which has been neglected for too long, but also in community support for families including everything from mental health services to social care. It is right to have high ambitions, but schools must have the resources they need if they are to play their part in delivering on them.”
Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Labour is right to focus on education as a class leveller.
“Improving opportunities and outcomes for children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds is fundamental for a fairer society, one in which all people are able to achieve their potential.
“The proposed focus on supporting recruitment and retention is also welcome. We know that great teaching is the most powerful lever we have for improving outcomes. Attracting skilled professionals to, and keeping them in, classrooms with children who need their expertise most should be a central focus for any government.
“It’s also encouraging to see a commitment to strengthening early years provision, which we know has the potential to profoundly impact children’s life chances by addressing gaps before they grow.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Education has been on the fringes of policymaking for too long and it is encouraging that Labour appears to recognise how central it should be. We look forward to examining their plans in more detail. One thing is for sure: unless the issues of pay erosion, inadequate funding and unmanageable workloads are addressed then there are not going to be enough teachers and leaders working in schools and colleges to enact the positive changes we all want to see.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “This announcement sketches a broad and ambitious programme of reform. If implemented boldly and funded well, it will repair much of the damage of the last 13 years.
“Teachers will be relieved that Labour recognises the multiple reasons for the teacher recruitment and retention problems. Labour is right to point to the failure of the current Government to engage in serious talks about recruitment, retention and the restoration of teachers’ pay. Labour should commit to a collective bargaining mechanism that can determine pay and conditions for all state funded teachers. Addressing the current exodus from the profession will require a sustained, real-terms fully funded correction in teachers’ pay and effective action to reduce sky-high workload.
“The NEU warmly welcomes the promised review of curriculum and assessment. The current assessment system narrows the curriculum and places excessive pressure on staff and pupils alike. Its problems cannot be dealt with by minor tinkering so this proposed review will be important. It is heartening that Labour will look at large-scale change.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “I’m delighted to see Labour’s bold ambition to get 80% of young people educated to A-level or technical equivalent as well as the recognition of the need for a cohesive post-16 education system, with colleges and universities both playing to their strengths.”
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said recent U-turns taken on policy proposals by Sir Keir’s party meant there could be “no guarantee” that his education reforms would come to fruition.
Labour last month backtracked on its £28 billion green prosperity plan, instead choosing to delay the spending pledge if it gets into Downing Street, while Sir Keir has dropped his leadership campaign commitment to abolish university tuition fees.
Conservative Cabinet minister Ms Keegan said: “Labour’s empty words are easy – delivery is difficult.
“Under Labour we had worse standards in schools, poorer outcomes for kids, and skills training that promoted pole fitness and balloon artistry.
“Labour offers nothing but flip flop after flip flop, from tax hikes to tuition fees – showing there is no guarantee that they will even stick to their word.
“Keir Starmer’s track record shows he will have probably changed his mind by the start of the summer holidays. So there’s no way parents and teachers can rely on anything he says.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub