Read: Full Keir Starmer mission speech on opportunity, education and childcare

Keir Starmer

Thank you Bridget, and thanks for all your hard work on this mission. And thank you to everyone here at Mid Kent College for hosting us, for being here. It’s fantastic to be here to talk about a mission that so many of you have dedicated your lives to.

Now, one thing I learnt from my teachers is that persuasive argument depends on clear objectives. So let me say that this speech should demonstrate two things. One, that Labour has a plan to tear down the barriers to opportunity that hold this country and its people back. And two, that I see this mission as our 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, your effort and your enterprise.

Breaking that link, that’s what Labour is for. I’ve always felt that and it runs very deep for me.  I grew up in small town in Southern England. We had a semi-detached house, pebble-dashed – as I think I may have mentioned previously – with Mum, Dad, four kids, four dogs, and a blue Ford Cortina outside.  This was the 1970s, and I don’t plead poverty, not at all. This is just how life was, but I do look back now and think I’ve been on a journey.

To go from an ordinary working class background to leading the Crown Prosecution Service and now the Labour Party, I feel both privileged and proud. But over the last year or so, I’ve been thinking more and more about it. Because there is more than a touch of the 1970s about our economic situation right now.

Like then, we face a cost-of-living crisis that gnaws away at our ability to move forward. So I think about what it felt like to get on during that period, and about the fact I did see plenty of people from my background go on to achieve their aspirations.

I don’t think I’m being too sentimental to say I grew up surrounded by hope. We took it for granted.

A sense that enterprise, hard-work and imagination would be rewarded in Britain, that – even in tough times – this would see us through, and that things would get better for families like ours.

My parents didn’t just believe this – it comforted them. It’s what everyone wants for their family. More than a British value. It’s a story we still tell our children: “work hard and you can achieve anything. Work hard and you will get a fair chance in Britain”.

The question is, do we still believe it? Do you look around our country today and believe – with the certainty you deserve – that Britain will be better for you or your children? Because you should.

That’s something we should be able to trust, all of us. An unwritten contract, a bond of hope between citizen and country, generation and generation.

So I promise you this: whatever the obstacles to opportunity, wherever the barriers to hope, my Labour Government will tear them down.

Clear and measurable goals

And as with all our missions, we’ll do so spurred on by clear and measurable goals that we will change Britain, break the link between where you start in life and where you end up.

We can measure that. The earnings of our children should not be determined by those of their parents. And make no mistake, from where we are now – that’s an ambitious target, but it’s also urgent.

This is the world of artificial intelligence, of technologies that stretch the boundaries of our imagination.  We’ve got to open our minds to meet that, turn our gaze towards our children’s future, and we’ve got to make sure we’re preparing them for life and work in their Britain.

As I said in Leith recently, the industries of tomorrow can come to our shores but the rest of the world is pushing forward as well. The race for the future is unforgiving, so we’ve got to move fast.  We must unlock the potential that is in every community, grow the talents of every child.

This means we’ve got to get to the bottom of a challenge with a long history, the roots of this are deep.

In part, it’s about security, and especially the diminishing access to affordable homes. When I think back to the 1970s and to the cost-of-living crisis we faced then, that pebble-dashed semi my parents owned, that was my springboard. It was the secure foundation that gave us stability, as the world beyond our front door became more uncertain.

It’s about community as well. For a long time now, too many people have had to leave theirs to find success, had to get out, to get on.  When talented young people start to leave a town, it becomes hard to break free from that dynamic. It’s a vicious cycle, it leads to communities – far too many in this country – where the only jobs on offer are low paid and insecure.

And insecurity is the enemy of opportunity. It places barriers, not just economic barriers, subtle barriers in the minds of working people, chips away at the stability of family life, the reservoirs of confidence that people from less privileged backgrounds need to get on.

I’m sorry to say it – but that’s what this cost-of-living crisis is doing right now, what the Tory mortgage bombshell is doing, what the total collapse of house-building is doing.  But look, there’s also something more pernicious here, a pervasive idea, a barrier in our collective mind that narrows our ambitions for working class children and says – sometimes with subtlety, sometimes to your face – this isn’t for you.

We must shatter the “class ceiling”

Some people call it the “class ceiling” – and that’s a good name for it. Yes, economic insecurity, structural and racial injustice are part of it, of course they are, but it’s also about a fundamental lack of respect, a snobbery that too often extends into adulthood, raising its ugly head when it comes to inequalities at work. In pay, promotions, and opportunities.

Take my dad. He was a tool-maker – and a good one – highly skilled, proud of his work. But back in the 1980s, the Tories made it quite clear people like him were not valued and that actually, they didn’t see the point of our country making things, that his skills were not part of their future. This hurt him.

Whenever anyone asked that old question “what do you do for a living” – I could see him visibly pull away. He felt looked down upon, disrespected. It chipped away at his esteem.

Now, I’m not going to pretend the Thatcher Government invented this kind of snobbery. In truth, it’s always been there, but what happened back then is that our economy fundamentally changed and the complacency – that we didn’t need to educate all our children because they could just leave school at 15 and get a good job in their community – that was exposed, almost overnight.

And this cultural bruise, it’s still with us – and we have to confront it. The last Labour government had the best record on education in the history of our country – without question.

We expanded higher education, fundamentally raised school standards, gave millions of working class children – children of all backgrounds – the tools to thrive in a new knowledge economy.

But honestly? We didn’t tackle this, didn’t eradicate the snobbery that looks down on vocational education, didn’t drain the well of disrespect that this creates, and that cost us.

Because when economic success began to cluster in fewer communities, when the penalties for not going to university became more severe, that left us without a response, chasing the future, unable to prepare all our children for life and work in their Britain.

So these are the two fundamental questions we must now ask of our education system: are we keeping pace with the future, preparing all our children to face it?

And – are we prepared to confront the toxic divides that maintain the class ceiling?

Hold them in your mind, because if they were a rumble of concern 13 years ago, they’re a deafening roar now.

Rishi Sunak has given up on education reform. He’s not interested in our children’s future. If you think that’s unfair, then let me remind you what happened during the pandemic. When he, as Chancellor, cancelled the national recovery plan, after our children – and working class children especially – gave up so much for the greater good.

So – for his Tory Party to turn around afterwards and repay their sacrifice with nothing, to sit there twiddling their thumbs as teachers leave in their droves, school buildings start to crumble and absenteeism goes through the roof – that’s shameful.

And this is what the Tories don’t get. Those two questions – remember them.

“Can we prepare all our children for the future”?

“Will we confront the divides that maintain the class ceiling”?

They’re one and the same. I’m serious, the sheep and goats mentality that’s always been there in English education, the “academic for my kids; vocational for your kids” snobbery – 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. They need knowledge and skills, practical problem-solving and academic rigour, curiosity and a love of learning – that’s always been critical.

“We also need a greater emphasis on creativity, on resilience, on emotional intelligence”

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.

Emphasis on all the attributes – to put it starkly – that make us human, that distinguish us from learning machines, make our communities and our lives so rich and rewarding.

Honestly – we’ve just got to get this into our heads. It isn’t the case that the status quo only fails children outside the academic route, without modernising education, we’re also failing the children who do go down that route, preparing them all for a world that is receding into the past.

So, just as I will bulldoze through planning laws to reignite the dream of home ownership, just as I will take the tough decisions necessary to win the race for the jobs of the future, rebuild the secure foundation opportunity depends upon: the safer streets; the cheaper clean electricity; the NHS fit for the future; and sustained growth in every community.

So too will I introduce a curriculum fit for the digital age. So too will I fight for vocational training to be respected as much as a university education. So too will I drag our education system into the future. And shatter the class ceiling.

So let me set out five areas where a reformed education system can be the game-changer. Five barriers that, taken together, we must tear down to prepare our children for the future.

Barrier one, the insecurity that right now is destabilising family life. Education is part of our response, part of the strong foundation our children need to get on. Most of all in the early years which we know, from all the evidence, are so crucial to lifelong flourishing.

Let me tell you about Osob, this is a constituent of mine from Camden. Osob starting attending a children’s centre when her son was 18 months old. At the time she was sleeping on her mum’s living room floor, suffering from depression and poverty.

Now thanks to the work of that children’s centre – kept open by a Labour council – she’s managed to get on her feet, a flat of her own, tailored support for her son – now diagnosed with autism – on his language development, and a place for him at nursery.

Osob is a parents champion in our community now – a life turned around. But now after the wreckage of the past 13 years, her story is becoming rarer and rarer.

Now, I won’t mince my words – rebuilding these services is going to be difficult, but we can start that journey with a clear target: to boost child development with half a million more children hitting their early learning targets by 2030.

And we will set out the first steps: thousands more health visitors in the community, expanding mental health access for new parents, and working with local authorities to boost capacity in our childcare system, raise standards in early education, stop the growing number of nurseries that right now are being forced to shut their doors for good.

Barrier two – confidence. It sounds simple, but all the teachers here will know how important this is. In every class there are kids who have so much ability and talent, but who struggle to find within themselves the confidence to express it, the belief that their ideas matter, the voice to speak up.

We must improve speaking skills

This is a subtle and significant layer of the class ceiling – don’t doubt that. The inability to speak fluently is one of the biggest barriers to opportunity, and it’s also a massive challenge left behind by the pandemic, particularly in early language development.

Just think for a moment about how sad that is. Watching those first playful steps towards expression, that has to be one of the greatest joys of parenting – of life, even. But it must also be one of the greatest anxieties if your child is struggling.

So let’s take this on. Let’s raise the importance of speaking skills – ‘oracy’ as academics call it.

Because these skills are absolutely critical for our children’s future success. First and foremost – for academic attainment. Talking through your ideas before putting them on the page, improves writing.

Structured classroom discussion – deepens thinking.  But it’s not just a skill for learning, it’s also a skill for life. Not just for the workplace, also for working out who you are – for overcoming shyness or disaffection, anxiety or doubt – or even just for opening up more to our friends and family.

We don’t do enough of that as a society, and I’m as guilty as anyone, but wouldn’t that be something precious for our children to aim for? I think so.

Confident speaking gives you a steely core, and an inner belief to make your case in any environment. Whether that’s persuading your mum to buy some new trainers, a sceptical public to hear your argument, or even your daughter to let-go of her iPhone. It’s not fool-proof.

But we do need to nurture it early, in the early years and in primary school. So today I can announce, we will give every primary school new funding – paid for by removing tax breaks on private schools – that will let them invest in world-class early language interventions, and help our children find their voice.

Reform of an outdated curriculum

Barrier three – an outdated curriculum. The mentality that cleaves to a comfort-zone. A conservatism that refuses to re-examine whether what we teach our children should keep pace with the world outside.

I say, in no uncertain terms, it should, because the race is on. All around the world, the best in class are rethinking their curricula, and every one of them is putting greater creativity front and centre, including countries like Estonia and Singapore.  So today we start to catch-up.

We will update the ‘progress eight’ performance measure, and we will use it to get children studying a creative arts subject, or sport, until they are 16.

But we will also go further. We will weave oracy through a new national curriculum that finally closes the gap between learning and life, academic and practical, vocational skills, school and work. A curriculum that will finally crack the code on digital skills too. We’ve got to address this.

The old way – learning out of date IT, on 20 year old computers – doesn’t work. But neither does the new fashion, that every kid should be a coder, when artificial intelligence will blow that future away.

The basic truth is this: to prepare our children for their future, we’ve got to use every opportunity, in every classroom, to nurture digital skills.

Ticking a “one subject, one lesson a week box” simply won’t work anymore, so the next Labour Government will review the national curriculum.

And today we set out the principles of our review: how we must deliver high standards for every child, how we must crack the code on digital skills – starting that journey early, in primary school, and how we need every young person, whatever their background, to see themselves in the curriculum.

With role models and stories that can inspire them to do great things. Look, I know people have been arguing about this for a long time. I salute those teachers who over the past few years, have taken their subject and developed a rich curriculum, of flowing knowledge and deep conceptual understanding.

Let me be clear: Labour will build on that. But this 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.

Most of all, on barrier four, this country’s attitude towards vocational education. Make no mistake, this is one with the deepest roots and we can’t rip them all out by ourselves.

This has to be a shared undertaking. It’s not just businesses, colleges and parents – it’s the whole of society. We’ve all been shaped by the class ceiling. We have to remove it, and there are steps we can take today.

First – a practical goal that will drive us forward, to give more people than ever access to the best quality post-19 training.

Next – a proper national skills plan, led by a new body, Skills England, that will work hand-in-glove with our industrial policy and make sure we can compete in the race for the jobs of the future.

And finally – a new growth and skills levy that doubles-down on apprenticeships, high quality apprenticeships, and that also looks again at the full breadth of formal training available, identifies the best options and gives businesses greater flexibility to invest in them.

Whether that’s the tech boot camps that can train AI experts in weeks, the technical courses that can prepare young people for the engineering jobs we need in clean energy, or the traineeships that can give kids a foot in the door in the first place.

Finally five – the soft bigotry of low expectations. An old barrier, but one that always needs more work.

Now, before anyone says it, I know that’s something Michael Gove said. I don’t agree with everything he did in education, clearly, but when he said that – it was an important strike against the class ceiling.

An acknowledgement that school standards are the most fundamental frontline in the battle for more opportunity. And whatever else you thought about that period in education, the Tories simply don’t care anymore.

They’re not interested in raising school standards. How can they be when the number of teachers leaving the profession is at record highs, and when in parts of our country, adverts for a maths or science teacher get no applicants.

We’ve got to turn this around urgently. That’s why we’ll tackle the retention crisis by rewarding great new teachers who commit to a career in the classroom, why we’ll recruit more teachers in shortage subjects – over 6,500 more – and why to support high standards, we will reform Ofsted so that it works for parents and children once more.

Safeguarding reviews should happen every year, and parents deserve a clearer picture on how their children are being educated.

Not a one word judgment – a whole dashboard. This is the formula.

Effective accountability, high quality teaching, a curriculum that prepares you for life and work. That’s what Labour will deliver – high standards for all of our children.

So, five barriers we can tear down, a new plan for a new future. The road to respect and shattering the class ceiling.

You know, in Somers Town in my constituency – one of the poorest areas of London – kids can look out their window, down at Kings Cross and Granary Square, and see out there a glittering world of opportunity: construction everywhere, global technology firms, a whole new city being built just a mile away.

But one that can feel so distant to them, almost another world. I want them to imagine themselves there and for that to feel natural. Whatever their race, whatever their background, to think they belong, that success belongs to them.

That in this country your circumstances don’t hold you back, and that you don’t have to change who you are, just to get on.

This isn’t a zero-sum game. If we grow the talents of every person in our country – that benefits everyone.

Think about it. The sharp elbows, the ladder-pulling, the all-consuming fear of failure – it all springs from the same well as my dad’s feelings of disrespect.

A rational response to the rungs of opportunity moving further and further apart, but an inequality that exhausts people and this country, and unravels the obligations we hold towards each other.

This is what my political project – my mission – is about, because if we do shatter the class ceiling, that’s the prize.

A nation once again, a community. A country where we share a stake in every child, not just our own.

A Britain with its future back, united, moving forward, standing tall. That delivers security, backs aspiration, opportunity for all, and believes – truly believes – that the future will be better for its children. Thank you very much.

 

More from LabourList

DONATE HERE

We provide our content free, but good journalism costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.
If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £5 or £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR DAILY EMAIL