Wes Streeting has pointed to tackling child poverty, investing in the teaching profession and improving local accountability and decision-making as the top three priorities for Labour in creating a “world-leading education system”.
Addressing the Fabian Society’s new year 2021 conference today, the shadow schools minister discussed the immediate challenges presented by the coronavirus crisis as well as Labour’s education objectives more broadly.
The opposition frontbencher told those attending the online event that there is an “obvious link” between poverty and educational inequality, and stressed the need for a government with an “ambitious plan” to end child poverty.
Streeting said: “Although we rightly demand the very best and excellence in terms of what goes on within the schools gates… we’ve got to recognise they can only do so much while the conditions beyond the school gate are so dire.”
He added: “If we’re serious about improving life chances and opportunities for children and young people, that’s not just about education – it’s about housing, employment, connectivity, the wider economy.
“And so you can expect Labour to have that kind of big bold vision on tackling poverty and inequality beyond the school gates to give kids a better chance of succeeding within the school gates.”
Streeting stressed the need for the UK to be “the best place in the world to be a teacher” if, as Keir Starmer has repeatedly said, the Labour Party wants the country to be the “best place in the world for a child to grow up in”.
“If we get the very best out of the schools workforce, they will get the very best out of their kids,” he argued, adding that government must “invest in their ongoing training and professional development” as well as initial teacher training.
The shadow minister made the case for greater local democratic accountability in the schools system, saying: “In terms of some of the big issues like the curriculum, what we teach, how we teach – where do those decisions best sit?
“Is it really with an Education Secretary who changes every five minutes in Whitehall? Or is it with the profession? And how do we put more support and trust in the profession?
“And then where do we bring in democratic accountability? I don’t just mean democratic accountability from Whitehall, from Holyrood or Cardiff Bay. I mean local communities as well.”
Streeting emphasised the need to restore “some democratic accountability” in the schools system so that local elected decision-makers, such as councillors, as well as parents and pupils, have a say over education.
“Tackling poverty outside the school gates, investing in our teaching profession so it’s the best in the world and also thinking about where decisions best sit and how we restore some democratic accountability – I think that would put us on the right path to having a genuinely world-leading education system.”
He also criticised the government for its failure to provide school students with the necessary resources to study remotely from home during disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis, including the current lockdown in place across England.
The Labour MP described the recent fiasco over inadequate food parcels being distributed to families across the UK as “horrifying”, and highlighted that the packages put together “only just fell short” of government guidance.
Streeting also told participants at the virtual meeting today, held by the Young Scottish Fabians, that “education absolutely should be a priority for Scottish Labour” in the 2021 elections because the record of the SNP has been “woeful”.
He highlighted that there are now fewer teachers in the devolved nation than when the SNP took power and that the gap in educational attainment between disadvantaged children and their more affluent counterparts has grown.
“The fact is that the SNP have responsibility for education,” he explained. “They have plenty of powers and scope for education in Scotland – and their record is woeful. This is on Nicola Sturgeon’s watch, not anyone else’s.”
The Labour frontbencher added: “They love talking about independence. It is their reason for being. But it is not in the top ten list of things that people in Scotland are currently worrying about.
“We’ve got to stick to the issues that people are really caring about and really focus on people’s everyday lives. Education is top of the list. We’ve got a vision, the SNP’s record is shameful and we should tear them apart on it.”
His comments come after Richard Leonard stood down as leader of the Scottish Labour Party with immediate effect on Thursday, ahead of Holyrood elections set to take place in May. Leonard said his decision was “in the best interests of the party”.
Voters in Scotland will head to the polls on May 6th this year to elect their Holyrood representatives. Polling last month showed Scottish Labour ranking third on voter intention, behind the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives.
16% of electors surveyed indicated that they would opt for Scottish Labour candidates in the constituency vote, behind the Tories on 20%, while 17% reported that they intend to back the party in the regional list vote.
The event this afternoon formed part of the annual new year conference held by the Fabian Society with panel events, discussion groups and speeches being delivered remotely this year in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.