Oh dear, Sir Keir

Oh dear, Sir Keir

The man who is likely to be our next Prime Minister has opined on the subject of education.

In a wide-ranging speech, Sir Keir Starmer attempted to set out what a Labour government would do for our schoolchildren.

Of course, being a Labour leader he neglected to mention that his own education benefited from the private sector. His school turned private while he was there.

There were things in the speech that I agree with – but so does pretty much everyone else including the present government.

These were uncontroversial things that included saying that aspiration and ambition are desirable in every student.

Who wouldn’t think this?

Did Sir Keir need to say this as a message to his own side?

What he would have been better saying is that some teachers should have more aspiration for their students. Many won’t encourage children to apply for Oxbridge places, either because they assume the places are for rich children and theirs wouldn’t fit in – or for ideological reasons. Nonsense.

Sir Keir also wanted an increased emphasis on vocational training. Everybody knows this is required and it is something the present government has been working on.

If Tony Blair hadn’t insisted that half of school children go to university (many of them completely unsuited to it) there might not be such a shortage of youngsters aspiring to head in a vocational direction.

AI and ‘digital’ was also something Sir Keir spoke about. But again, this is something that the sector is already aware of and which teachers are tackling.

Many of Sir Keir’s bland platitudes are uncontroversial and are things that few would disagree with.

‘Delivering high standards’ – ‘inspiring role models’ – ‘importance of knowledge and skills’ – ‘more apprenticeships’ – ‘combating low expectations’.


But let’s look at the things Sir Keir covered that I don’t agree with, or which might harm the education of our youngsters.


First, his belief that taxing private schools will bring in significant revenue. Rather than try and make state schools as good as private schools, he chooses to harm private schools to try and bring them down towards the level of state schools.

It is the politics of envy.

There are about 620,000 children being educated in the private system, which is around seven per cent of all youngsters.

By making these schools pay VAT Sir Keir believes a billion pounds will be generated to help fund the state sector.

There are problems with this, and it’s worth noting that neither Blair nor Brown attempted it when in power.

Charging VAT to these schools will increase fees by about £3,000-4,000 per annum for most of these parents.

But many parents will not be able to pay the increased fees and will put their children back into the state system.

This will be exacerbated by the fact that many of these schools will no longer be able to afford to provide bursaries and scholarships that reduce a child’s fees or even provide a free place. This will lead to more children going to state schools.

Some of the independent schools that are on the margin will close – this happened in the last recession.

This will again send children back into the state system.

The cost of living crisis with high inflation and increased mortgages means that many parents won’t be able to afford the fees – again, more children will end up in the state system.

Every child that is educated in the private system saves the government about £7,500 a year because parents are in effect paying twice.

They pay for their child to be educated in the state system through their taxes and also pay fees for a private school place.

This is the likely scenario; around one-fifth of children (124,000) currently being educated in the private system will end up back in the state system.

If we multiply 124,000 by £7,500 it comes to £930,000,000 (nearly £1 billion) – so Keir’s £1 billion is wiped out.

Secondly, improved oracy – I’m not exactly sure what is meant by this. I think the time is long past where people really care about accents or how people communicate, providing they do it with clarity.

In my state school, I remember having elocution lessons. Is that what he is proposing? It all sounds rather vague.

Schools have been about communication ever since they were first envisaged. How else do people learn? We should not be making judgements about the way people speak providing they can clearly communicate their ideas and thoughts.

Is he proposing lessons in rhetoric? I hear vague talk of ‘structured classroom discussion’ – all teachers do this already. He must know this. Surely, we should be focusing on improving children’s literacy overall. If they can write and think well, they will speak more intelligently.

The real difference between privately-schooled children and those from state schools when it comes to ‘oracy’ is often about confidence. This is what should be dealt with.

In private schools, children are taught to debate. There are debating societies. Arguments can be developed and defended.

Also, the children learn how to speak to an audience – public speaking.

All this happens less often in the state schools.

Thirdly, Sir Keir wants a review of the National Curriculum. I believe the real issue that needs looking at is the way the children are being assessed.

The current system of categorising children’s performance in just three possible gradings is inadequate. ‘Working towards’, ‘working at’ or ‘working above’ National Level is unhelpful.

It lacks specificity and gives very little information to parents, schools and the government on the actual performance of children.

The curriculum in numeracy and literacy has been greatly improved by the changes made in 2014.

If Sir Keir means going back to the progressive educational ideas that the previous National Curriculum contained it would be disastrous.

The most important thing is to ensure that numeracy and literacy are properly taught at primary level.

There must be no diminution of the teaching of the basics. Whatever is bolted onto this must not lower our demand for improved literacy and numeracy.

Good literacy and numeracy is the key foundation for all education. Then there must be meaningful testing and grading.

After this everything follows.