How Labour would improve education after Government results fiasco - Sir Keir Starmer

An exclusive column by the leader of the Labour Party as pupils return to school.

Picture: Tony Johnson

As children return to school this week, their excitement at being back together with their friends and enthusiasm to meet the challenges of a new year is clear to see.

This generation of young people have faced extraordinary challenges. The resilience they have shown to come through three lockdowns and remain optimistic and ambitious for their education is inspiring. I only wish the effort and ambition of our young people and teaching staff was matched by their Prime Minister.Read more: Now will Boris Johnson sack the inept Gavin Williamson? – The Yorkshire Post saysPupils across Yorkshire and the Humber were forced to miss more than half a year of lost learning in school. The Government’s priority ought to be urgently putting this right, getting mitigations in place to keep children in school and providing catch up learning to ensure this generation is not permanently held back.

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When Boris Johnson’s advisor, Sir Kevan Collins, produced a plan to catch-up children on the learning they have missed out on, the Prime Minister simply rejected it, forcing Sir Kevan to resign.

Keir Starmer. Photo by Darren Staples/Getty Images.

Sir Kevan warned that inequality will be the Covid legacy in education without a “comprehensive, robust and long-term plan”. Unfortunately, that inequality became apparent with this summer’s results.

After the 2020 results fiasco, Labour warned the Government that it should prepare a Plan B, in case exams had to be cancelled again. Instead, the Education Secretary dismissed our calls and said he was “absolutely certain” that exams would go ahead. Just days before teachers needed to finalise their plans, he recklessly u-turned. If the Education Secretary were to be marked on his performance, he’d get a U.

This last minute decision-making opened the door to greater unfairness. The gap between private and state school pupils’ results widened significantly, while children on free school meals were half as likely as their peers to achieve Grade 7 or above at GCSE. The results made a mockery of Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda, as students in Yorkshire and the Humber were more than 25 per cent less likely to receive top GCSE or A-level grades than students in London.

Now we find ourselves in this position again. GCSE, A-level and BTEC pupils are returning to their classrooms not knowing how they will be examined.

This cannot happen again. We have set out our own plan to deliver fair grades this year, either through adapted exams that recognise the disruption to learning, or if exams cannot happen, a clear plan B with two assessment points in the Spring term that gives schools and pupils time to prepare.

The Conservatives may blame the pandemic, but the last decade saw the biggest cut to school funding for 40 years. And as schools return, too many children are going back into super-sized classes.

Across Yorkshire and the Humber, 100,000 children are in classes of more than 30. Our children should be given the time, space, and resources needed to develop to their full potential, not squeezed into classrooms like sardines in a tin.

That’s when they eventually get back into their classrooms after the government’s last minute news that the start of term could be delayed for secondary pupils, giving parents almost no time to plan or prepare. When all pupils are back the government should be working to keep them in class. Yet the Conservatives are again brushing aside pleas from teachers, parents and Labour for action to prevent Covid spreading.

While other countries have installed ventilation systems in classrooms our Prime Minister is turning a blind eye risking a repeat of last year’s chaos.

Children should be at the heart of our recovery from the pandemic, and that’s where I would place them as Prime Minister.

Where Boris Johnson refused, Labour’s Children’s Recovery Plan would support every child to bounce back from the pandemic. It is a plan that meets the challenge posed by Covid and leaves no child behind.

We would be delivering small group tutoring for all who need it, and targeted investment for those children who faced the greatest disruption over the past 18 months, to make sure children catch up on the teaching they missed out on.

It’s not just about academic education. Children’s development, wellbeing, and mental health have all been impacted. To make up for the months spent apart from their friends, Labour would provide breakfast clubs and an expanded range of extracurricular activities, providing more time to play and socialise. We’d also give every child the support they need to transition back to school and manage personal challenges by ensuring quality mental health support in every school.

And recognising that teachers have had one of the most difficult years of their careers, we would get them the training they need to stay on top of the latest knowledge and techniques, so they can give every child a brilliant classroom experience.

Look at what Labour councils are already doing in Yorkshire. Sheffield, which provided thousands of laptops to children who would otherwise have struggled to keep up during lockdown. And Leeds council, ensuring that kids in receipt of free school meals do not go hungry this summer.

I want Britain to be the best country in the world to grow up in, whether you live in Leeds, Hull, Skipton or beyond. That’s the future I will deliver as Prime Minister.

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