Sunday thoughts: Is this a Britain that “believes — truly believes — that the future will be better for its children”? Reflections on Sir Keir Starmer’s speech

Jonathan Simons
9 min readJul 9, 2023

Look, the last time I did one of these, I speculated as to whether “Liz Truss could be the education Prime Minister”. So read the below on that basis. On the other hand, she was more an education Prime Minister than she was a finance Prime Minister, so there’s that, I guess.

Anyway, some slightly slower time thoughts on the Starmer speech on opportunity this week, further to the client note we sent out on Thursday evening.

A former colleague of mine, now in LOTO, used to be driven mad by the accusation that Labour doesn’t have any policies. They have hundreds, she used to protest. And what’s interesting about this week is not just the speech but the accompanying briefing document, which covers at least 40 commitments just in the education space. It is absolutely not true that Labour don’t have any policies on education, and though many of them are relatively lightly sketched out here, there’s comfortably more detail than would ever sit in a manifesto, and plenty of detail for DfE civil servants to take these and start thinking about how they would turn them into legislation or other policy framing, should Labour form the next government.

But there’s two more other things that are significant — one buried in the annex of the doc, and one not so buried on the front page of the Sunday Times today.

I know. I know it’s a cliché to say there’s no money. I don’t want to go all Greg Hands and Liam Byrne on this. But it really is the dominant framing of at least the first couple of years of a putative future Labour government. When total DfE expenditure in 2021/22 (last available accounts) is over £70bn, and where school funding on its own is rising by £5bn between September 2022 and September 2024, a set of 40 commitments launched by the likely next Prime Minister with a combined price tag of £1bn shows the state of play.

So Bridget Phillipson and her team aren’t quite playing with a Mr Bun the Baker and a Shadowmage, but they are in the unfortunate position of rocking up to Harrods with a hankering for some nice shiny things, and £2.50 in their pocket.

As such, it’s not a surprise that there’s no commitments in here on teacher pay (at least £2bn a year to settle the strike by paying 6.5%), on tuition fees (£11bn to scrap them — now abandoned — but £4bn or so to even take them down to £6k), on children’s social care (£2bn a year according to the McAllister review), on reversing FE funding declines, on increasing early years hourly rates and so on. Firstly, they haven’t found a way to pay for them. Secondly, why would they allow the Government to steal their plan. Thirdly, if the Government settles it for them (as they seem likely to do on teacher pay) then it’s a spending commitment they don’t need to make. And fourthly, if the Government changes the overall public spending baseline between now and the election next year, that offers new opportunities. For example, if Jeremy Hunt cuts income tax by 1p in the Budget, that costs HMT around £5bn a year from whenever it takes effect. Labour could, at that point, say it will reverse that cut if they take office, and — presto! — they now have £5bn more to play with.*

So let’s assume, perhaps, that there remains a window of opportunity where Labour may make a commitment on perhaps one expensive thing in education. Maybe they won’t even do that. But regardless, this list of 40 does represent the bulk of what a newly elected Labour government would start to do in 2024 and into 2025 — presumably with a hope that as the economy improves and tax receipts rise (and the new Spending Review process kicks in), there’ll be an opportunity to increase spending mid-way through the term, before the next election.

I want to highlight a couple of smaller things in the doc which I particularly like, and which have had less coverage than “super teacher hit squads” (I know, not their wording, but I don’t much like the policy anyway), Ofsted reform and a report card (pretty good), oracy (I like, but apparently it’s not about making us all university debaters), or a curriculum review (inevitable).

“Labour will boost child development with half a million more children hitting the early learning goals by 2030”. This, I really like. There’s a wealth of evidence behind the importance of a strong early years foundation to success in later life. And while primary standards have risen (pre covid), early years needs a similar boost. Moving from 71% of children hitting this level pre pandemic to 90% by 2030 would be pretty transformational. If wishing made it so, perhaps, but there’s a lot of plans underneath this commitment that are spelled out in the doc — significant investment in speech ad language development, workforce improvements in early years, new childcare places, a commitment to better create and integrate school based nurseries, and support for parent mental health where needed.

“Retaining excellent teachers and leaders” — we’ve done a lot of work on this recently at PF, so of course I like this. But again, the reason I like this commitment as spelled out by Labour is that it identifies a problem, and then follows up with some specific and tangible things it would do which might have an impact. It will keep the ECF (a huge win for those people in government and the sector who have fought hard to introduce it) but matches it with a retention payment on completion (presumably linked to staying in the workforce). It will review the £180m bursary spend to see if that’s working, and opens up the option of switching some of that to retention. The promised Teacher Training Entitlement (a CPD entitlement really) could be fantastic. The only thing that’s explicitly missing here for me is a review of all the various hubs, and other schemes to target geographic need (hello, Education Investment Areas. Hello, Priority Education Investment Areas….) My strong hypothesis is switching some of that cash towards retaining good teachers in those areas to stay in the profession is about the best thing government can do. But overall, I really like this.

Careers advice and work experience — this always risks being a small area, and it’s easy to roll eyes at it. But I was (naively?) surprised that it wasn’t mandatory for every young person to undertake a period of work experience while at school, and Nick Brook at Speakers for Schools told me the other day that on Careers and Enterprise Company data, something like 50% of young people don’t — and we can all guess the type of children that do and don’t. The reason the careers and work experience pledge works here in my view is that it recognises that there are a lot of brokering organisations out there, and wants schools to work with those rather than inventing their own plans. It also recognises that we will need to build that capacity over time and shouldn’t just leap to 100% target in 2024 or 2025. And thirdly, because it’s framed not just as context for young people thinking about work, but also about onward study. Work experience is also study experience, where the various different options of high academic study, higher technical study, work with training should all be laid out.

“Labour will reverse the decline in the number of young people moving into sustained education, employment or training after completing their 16–18 education. We will aim for over 85% of young people to be in a sustained destination by 2030, including more young people who have completed a level 3 qualification moving onto higher level education and training, with over 70% moving onto higher level opportunities by 2030.” A long quote here, because there’s a lot in this one. This is the sensible evolution of the “how many children should go to HE” debate and lifts, I believe, from the subsequent work that Blair and his Institute have done to think about future progression of young people. The “should 50% of kids go to uni” debate is terrible, because it risks underplaying two other important questions — should a lot more people be focussing on achieving Level 3 by 18? And should a far greater number be achieving some sort of post Level 3 opportunity, after 18? The answer to both of those in my mind has always been yes; and if you start from there, then you naturally see a significant increase in HE provision, alongside more Level 3 achievements, and a growth of higher technical education. This isn’t a party political point, in that I think the government also believes most of this (but seems reluctant to accept the logic of continued HE expansion as part of it). Reading this para, I am hugely cheered that a Labour government would recognise — even if they continue to dodge questions about HE financing — that we need a well funded route for all young people post-16, including those who go on to higher level technical quals.

“Tertiary education delivering Labour’s Missions”. Yes, the HE funding is still unclear. But universities and colleges are about more than just that, and there’s a lot in this section that recognises the value of the sector. It includes, again, keeping the best of what exists (or may shortly exist) — so it’s a yes to keeping the LLE, a yes to the civic agenda, and a yes to boosting spin outs. It’s also a strong yes to colleges and universities working together in local areas, with a promise that“The regulatory landscape that covers higher and further education is complex, burdensome and bureaucratic. A Labour government will undertake a period of review, with the aim of streamlining regulation and ensuring that regulators are supporting cooperation and collaboration between colleges and universities. We will learn from proactive approaches to supporting ‘articulation agreements’, which ensure that students are able to have learning recognised and can move seamlessly between institutions overcoming barriers to make accessing learning easier”. Easy to say, hard to do. But really welcome. As is “We will build on the legacy of the last Labour government’s target for 50% of young people to go to university to reverse the trend of declining numbers of adults participating in education and training. We’ll press on and ensure that the ambition for any young person to pursue higher education, regardless of background or geography, is realised”. This is a pair of sentences for the HE sector to keep hold of.

Those who have read our client note will know that at the end (in a bit that was authored by me) I said this week’s speech was letting Starmer be Starmer, and I was subsequently roundly mocked in the team for keeping that terrible West Wing pastiche through into the final draft. But I liked the speech a lot because it did seem authentic and set out what he believes. Starmer isn’t, it seems to me, a politician who will have an -ism named after him in the future. He probably doesn’t spend hours on political theory and conceptions of the future role of the state. But in this speech he said — look, education and opportunity is really important. Parents want, more than anything else, a sense that their kids will get chances that they themselves didn’t have, and that their lives will be richer in all senses of the word because of what state, society and individuals together can offer all young people in the future. Many people don’t feel that this is happening at the moment. And so when he ended with the quote that leads this piece — do we believe in a Britain where this can happen — he was saying this is what a Labour government would do to fix that.

That seems a pretty fine ambition to me. And even with a small price tag, this document, and the work of Bridget Phillipson and her team, seems to set out a way to get there.

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* Yes, this is economically illiterate. But so much of government announcements and opposition responses are, from all parties, when it comes to this stuff, so politically it makes total sense and is in keeping with how Rachel Reeves has framed her fiscal rules.