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.
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.