Sir Keir Starmer says he hopes to bring state school standards up to those of their private counterparts within his first term if Labour wins the next general election – though he warned of funding issues due to the state of the economy.
Speaking to Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby, the Labour leader said he wanted to give children “the same opportunities” wherever they were educated and his government would “go at pace” to achieve that goal.
But he would not commit to increasing investment in education, blaming the “damage” the Conservatives had done to the public finances over their 13 years of power.
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Earlier, Sir Keir delivered a speech in Kent outlining how he planned to overhaul education, and “smash the class ceiling” that sees children’s backgrounds defining what they achieve later in life.
Key pledges included:
• Promising 500,000 more children will hit their early learning targets by 2030
• Investing in speech and language classes to “help our children find their voice”
• Updating the “outdated” curriculum to get children studying a creative arts subject or sport until they are 16
• Changing attitudes towards vocational education by providing more access to post-19 training
• Hiring 6,500 more teachers, making payments to increase retention, and reforming Ofsted
The Labour leader admitted to Beth Rigby that while some aspects – such as retention payments to teachers – could be introduced “very quickly”, the overarching goal of parity between public and state schools would “take time” as “we can’t just snap our fingers” to make it happen overnight.
But Sir Keir said the plans he had set out were “what I would hope to have achieved in five years of a Labour government, maybe a little bit more” and they would hit ear marker “as soon as we can”.
“We’re in a bad starting situation, but… I want state schools to be just as good as private schools,” he added.
“I want parents to feel that it doesn’t matter anymore whether you send your children to state or private school, because the quality of education is as good in both places, and to give children in state schools the same opportunities as they have in private school.”
Pushed by Beth Rigby on where the money was going to come from to pay for the policies, the Labour leader pointed to the party’s long-standing plan to cut the tax breaks for public schools, claiming that could raise as much as £1bn.
“But it’s not all about money,” he said. “There’s the reform issue here as well.
“When we’re talking about the curriculum and the difference that would make for children and young people to be able to express themselves clearly with confidence in the school, in the workplace, that will make a massive difference to their lives.”
However, he did accept money was “an issue” and if Labour took power next year, they would have to take “tough decisions”.
“It’s always an ambition of a Labour government to make sure we’ve got the best possible education and have properly funded public services,” said Sir Keir.
“We do need more funding. We will have to grow the economy. We’re going to inherit a very badly damaged economy.
“What I’ve set out is what steps we’re going to take now, how we’re going to fund them, what we’re going to do to grow the economy. And I would reflect back on the last Labour government.
“All Labour governments improve education standards, build schools, and that will be the ambition of the next Labour government, just as it was of the last Labour government.”
The party leader was also pressed over reports the government could be seeking to block next year’s recommended pay increase from the public sector pay review bodies, as teachers continue to strike across the country.
Sir Keir said he wanted to introduce a “framework for progression to recognise their qualifications, as well as the previously mentioned retention payments, but he would not commit to sticking to the recommendation – rumoured to be 6.5%.
On the strikes, he said would make sure his education secretary was “in the room talking to the unions right now to resolve this dispute”.
He added: “We’re in opposition, not government. The government needs to get around the table and resolve this issue.
“I think teachers will be hearing from today, as will parents, that there’s a core commitment from Labour to education if we come into power. Just as there was last time.”