Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Spare us from Keir Starmer’s vacuous education pledges

Keir Starmer (Credit: Getty images)

Keir Starmer clearly does not abide by the principle ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. On the contrary, with this week’s announcement of Labour’s plans to overhaul England’s education sector, Starmer has proven that even in the rare instance of something working well, Labour can be relied upon to make it worse.

Come the next election, Conservative activists looking to tally up the party’s successes will almost certainly land on education. Sure, they will have to close their eyes to the devastating impact of lockdown school closures and continued disruption by striking teachers. And they might have to cross their fingers and hope no one quizzes them on the mess that is Relationships and Sex Education. But if they manage to pull this off, then education really has improved since 2010.

The vast majority of Starmer’s proposed reforms to schools actually have nothing whatsoever to do with education

Take reading. England now ranks fourth in a major international study measuring children’s reading proficiency. Our 9 and 10-year olds are the best readers in the western world. The considerable progress made since the same study was conducted in 2011 has been largely put down to the phonics programme introduced by Michael Gove. Phonics continues to be controversial but Gove has surely been vindicated.

Just as significantly – but equally as controversially – Gove, along with schools’ minister Nick Gibb, championed a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’. Gibb has described ‘the teaching of a broad and balanced academic curriculum’ as being central to both levelling up and pupil wellbeing. Proof of success again lies in international league tables that show the UK having improved on previous performance in reading, maths and science.

Yet none of this prevented Starmer from announcing a raft of education policy proposals. Highlights include recruiting more teachers, breaking down the ‘snobbery’ that ranks academic education above vocational skills training, breakfast clubs in every primary school, removing charitable status from private schools, mandatory lessons in speaking, one-to-one mentors for children in Pupil Referral Units and introducing new dedicated ‘child poverty reduction specialists’ into the education system.

As this last point makes clear, the vast majority of Starmer’s proposed reforms to schools actually have nothing whatsoever to do with education. Few children work. If they grow up in poverty it is because their parents are poor. This has less to do with education and more to do with an unproductive national economy that leaves too many adults languishing on out-of-work benefits while plenty of those in work struggle to make ends meet. Putting ‘child poverty reduction specialists’ into schools will not change this.

By the same token, no one wants children to go hungry. But a quick bowl of cornflakes won’t improve algebra scores – only teaching maths can do this. And ending private school tax breaks might appease class warriors but will not automatically raise standards in state schools.

Education policies that are not about education at all, but are actually about social welfare, reveal Starmer’s philistinism. Nowhere in Labour’s 23-page long mission paper, Breaking Down the Barriers to Opportunity, is there any sense that education is important in its own terms. That, put simply, it is better for children to know things than not. That knowledge – of literature, history, geography, science – is worthwhile even if it does not help break the class ceiling, or lead to well-paid employment, or improve a teenager’s life skills.

While introducing more breakfast clubs and changing the charitable status of private schools can be written off as irrelevant tinkering-at-the-edges, it is Starmer’s decision to give greater emphasis to skills that should trouble anyone with a genuine interest in education. In yesterday’s speech on schools, Starmer said he wanted to see:

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.

Nice words. But utterly vacuous. In the absence of a knowledge-rich curriculum these so-called ‘skills for life’ are mere tricks. Indeed, it is knowledge – not regurgitating facts but understanding and wisdom – that ultimately distinguishes people from learning machines.

The devastating impact a future Labour government will have on education is perhaps best illustrated by Starmer’s plans to give children compulsory speaking lessons. Speaking skills are key to breaking down class barriers, Starmer declared, and he is a little bit right, of course: my northern vowels still mark me out as non-U.

However, Starmer is not suggesting that children receive elocution lessons but encouragement to express themselves more confidently and clearly. Again, not a bad thing. The fewer mutterers and mumblers, the better. But what’s missing from Starmer’s vision is any sense of what children will have to speak about.

It is good to be able to speak clearly. But even more important is having something worthwhile to say – and this can only come with knowledge. Without a firm basis in subject knowledge, speaking is a hollow skill. If Starmer gets his way we will have a generation of children able to recite teacher-approved platitudes, uncritically but loudly. Spare us, please.

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