Seema Malhotra, shadow skills minister

Labour’s plans for tackling skills shortages starts with schools

Communities have been utterly let down by 14 years of failure

If Labour wins power, it will unleash a “skills revolution” by revamping school curriculums and building more bridges between the worlds of school and work, says Seema Malhotra, the party’s shadow skills minister.

More specifically, the party has promised to “modernise” the curriculum to make it “rich and broad, inclusive and innovative”, offering pupils a better grounding in both skills and knowledge.

But how might this swing back to skills work in practice?

One example is Malhotra’s enthusiasm for funding “applied learning” – a teaching model based on real-world experiences – to revitalise maths in primaries, “alongside having fun and other learning experiences”.

She sees bringing young people closer to the world of work as solutions to disengagement.

The former shadow business minister says employers “want to be in schools earlier – in primary schools, because they know that children are making choices much earlier”.

She adds that government has a “responsibility” to “work in partnership with business”, which is “so important” for making sure the school curriculum is “teaching the things we need to”.

Seema Malhotra outside the shop her family ran with her sisters

Feeling like you belong

Malhotra’s own workplace experience began as a little girl, standing on tiptoes to see above the counter while helping her mum serve customers in the family shop.

The family of eight (including her grandmother) lived in the flat above. Malhotra, her three older sisters and younger brother shared two bunk beds in one room.

The lack of space meant Malhotra valued open, green spaces in her local community of Hounslow.

She came to see the area – which she has represented as Feltham and Heston MP since 2011 – “with different eyes” thanks to her school’s local history projects. She wants to see more local history taught in schools as part of Labour’s proposals for a broader curriculum.

“When people feel they belong in a place and they’re cared for, that can often be a seed for contributing in the community,” she says.

When Malhotra was nine, her mum began teaching English as a second language and provided special needs support at local primary schools, a role she says is “significant”.

She was inclined to follow in her mum’s footsteps, but then became drawn to politics at the age of 14. She was told to “work yourself up about something” for an English assignment, and chose Margaret Thatcher.

Seema Malhotra school photo with her sisters

But she still sees education as “something so important that you need to invest in”. And education was highly valued in her household; her grandmothers had both been forbidden from attending school in northern India, although her maternal grandmother attended a “secret school” until she was 11.

Malhotra went to the local comprehensive, and her parents “put everything into supporting” their children’s education.

She spent much of her parliamentary career also being the main family carer for her parents when they became ill.

Shortly after she was elected in 2011, her dad got cancer and she cared for him until he died in 2014 – the year she first became a shadow minister. She also cared for her mother who, following three strokes, died in 2022.

Seema Malhotra on graduation day with her mum

Work experience

Work experience was compulsory for schools when Malhotra was growing up. Her two-week placement at a garden centre was based on her passion for horticulture, which itself came from growing potatoes and carrots under the guidance of her elderly neighbours, Frank and Gladys.

Shortly after becoming the first ever Punjabi woman MP in 2011, Malhotra felt “very angry” the government was making work experience optional.

A subsequent freedom of information request revealed there were 60,000 fewer work experience placements in the next year. It was a policy change taken “without thinking through the consequences”.

Labour wants to make two-week work experience placements mandatory again.

Malhotra acknowledges it won’t be easy because of “employer fatigue”. Only half of pupils now do work experience, but employers face conflicting demands to offer work placements on new T-level courses and apprenticeships.

Malhotra would want to consult on the move first “to get it right”, and for her party to “work across departments on how we engage employers”. 

She speaks enthusiastically about how education business partnerships – which DfE withdrew funding for in 2011 but still exist as local networks linking businesses with education providers – had been “facilitating a lot of that opportunity locally”.

“It needs to be easier for teachers to reach out to the world of work, and for industry to reach in,” she adds.

Malhotra describes her party’s commitment to “recruit and train” over 1,000 new careers advisers in schools as “really significant”.

Their role will be “to operate between our schools and the world of work, to keep in touch with what’s changing” and to “help upskill teachers”.

Seema Malhotra campaigning for Labour

The importance of creativity

Malhotra’s politics and philosophy degree from Warwick University included a scholarship year at the University of Massachusetts.

Having never holidayed abroad – “our family holiday was a day trip to the seaside when the shop closed on August bank holiday Monday” – the experience was “eye opening”.

She bagged her first graduate job as a management consultant for IT firm Accenture in 1995, “just as computers were starting to take off”.

But feeling out of her depth, she delayed the role to take a master’s in business IT at Aston University.

She sees some parallels with the “skills revolution” that she “very strongly” believes is now needed with the advent of AI.

Although polls show Labour capitalising on frustration with the government’s lack of direction, the party has been criticised for not clearly setting out strong alternative proposals.

On schools, the party has said it will “weave oracy into lessons throughout school”, and Malhotra is keen to champion speaking skills.

She waxes lyrical on “the importance of music, drama, theatre and art”, and “the links between the creative industries and our economy”.

Malhotra also highlights the party’s recently-launched plan for the arts, culture and creative industries which promises a new “National Music Education Network”.

Labour also plans to “investigate the maths equivalent of phonics” and upskill primary teachers to teach the subject.

But she is all too well aware of the lack of bandwidth available to schools to deal with the fallout from cutbacks in other arms of the public sector. She’s “angry” with how “communities have been utterly let down by 14 years of failure”.

This is why Labour is pledging to employ 6,500 more teachers and more mental health professionals in schools.

Rolling out supervised toothbrushing in schools (a policy that hasn’t gone down well with some teachers) is “because young people with children are ending up in A&E, because they haven’t had dental health care. That shouldn’t be happening in 21st century Britain”.

Seema Malhotra at a roundtable with Labour leader Keir Starmer

‘We need optimism’

On the wider criticism of a lack of detail, Malhotra points to its industrial strategy, Start up, Scale Up Review and the Missions document as proof of the details it has published around skills.

She claims there was “not this much detail” from Labour before the 1997 or 2010 elections.

There’s also wariness that Labour’s ideas could be stolen. She claims when Labour unveiled its NHS workforce plan, the Conservatives “took that idea”.

“There will be more that comes out closer to the election,” she adds.

Seema Malhotra visiting an adult learning class in Greenford

And there’s still more to learn from overseas. Malhotra is visiting Singapore this week, believing it to be “10 years ahead of us on skills strategies”. She hopes to learn “how to get ahead” from their experiences.

But Labour has first to seize power if it’s to see these ideas come to fruition.

Malhotra takes “nothing for granted”, but is “ready for government”. However, she admits “things aren’t going to change overnight” if Labour wins.

“Everybody knows that. The country is so broken … But what we do have is hope, optimism and a plan to change what we can.”

More Profiles

Living with RAAC: How one school is still coping with crisis

Nine months after the RAAC crisis hit, the issue no longer dominates the news agenda but its fallout still...

Jessica Hill

Rachel Younger, school business leader and NAHT president

This weekend, Rachel Younger will take to the stage in front of hundreds of school leaders as the first...

Jessica Hill

Oli de Botton, The Careers & Enterprise Company

After putting oracy at the heart of a counter-cultural school that has helped shape Labour’s election offer, 
Oli de...

Jessica Hill

The rebel CEO with a community cause

Wayne Norrie is a MAT chief determined to always put children’s needs first, even if that means clashing with...

Jessica Hill

Looking to the Future after online harassment

Lawrence Foley went from school refuser to doctor in modernist literature – but his career almost came to a...

Jessica Hill

Dan Thomas, chief executive, TLP

Dan Thomas, now chief executive of The Learning Partnership trust, was once prompted by a fortune cookie to ‘take...

Jessica Hill

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *