School pupils need a “grounding” in both skills and knowledge to succeed, Sir Keir Starmer has said, as he pledged to “modernise” the school curriculum and “strengthen” the teaching profession.
In a major speech this morning, the Labour leader also spoke of the need for a “greater emphasis on creativity, on resilience, on emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt”.
The address in Gillingham, Kent, follows a series of policy announcements by the party over the past week.
They have pledged to pay early career teachers £2,400 retention bonuses, require all teachers to have or work towards qualified status and create new “school improvement teams” across England.
Education is the fifth of Labour’s five big “missions” as it prepares to form a potential government, and Starmer used the speech to set out his broad vision for reducing equality.
End ‘snobbery’ of academic vs vocational
The opposition leader spoke of the need to end the “divide” between academic and vocational education – a “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.”
Starmer also warned that the “debate about the relative importance of knowledge and skills, people outside the education world are baffled by it – and they’re right”.
“Everyone with their feet on the ground in the real world knows you need both, and these old arguments, old practices, old divides – they’re holding our children back.”
Starmer wants to ‘modernise’ curriculum
He set out plans to modernise the school curriculum “so that it properly prepares young people with the knowledge, skills and personal qualities needed to thrive in work and life”.
And he spoke of the need to “strengthen the teaching profession – so that we end the recruitment and retention crisis that is doing so much damage to standards in schools and ensure every child has an excellent specialist teacher in their classroom”.
Starmer also set Labour a goal of changing Britain so children’s future earnings are “no longer limited by those of their parents”.
The speech focused on the need to address inequality, and the Labour leader will pledge to fight the “pernicious idea that background equals destiny”.
‘The class ceiling’
He warned of a “class ceiling” holding some children back, and say his mission to address it is his “core purpose and my personal cause”.
“To fight – at every stage, for every child – the pernicious idea that background equals destiny.
“That your circumstances, who you are, where you come from, who you know, might shape your life more than your talent, effort and enterprise. No – breaking that link: that’s what Labour is for. I’ve always felt that. It runs deep for me.”
The Labour leader also warned that “the race is on for the jobs and industries of the future” and Britain must “grow the talents of every child” to succeed.
This is the “world of artificial intelligence, of genomics, of technologies that stretch the boundaries of our imagination”, he will say, and we must “open our minds to meet that. Turn our eyes towards our children’s future. Make sure – we are preparing them for life and work in their Britain.”
Inequality focus welcomed, but cash needed say unions
Leadership unions welcomed Labour’s focus on inequality, but warned its goals would not be achieved without proper investment in education
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman warned 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”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL leaders’ union, said education “has been on the fringes of policy-making for too long and it is encouraging that Labour appears to recognise how central it should be”.
“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.”