Turn Again, Starmer

School blackboard with random handdrawn chalk education symbols and the word SCHOOL in the centre in a teaching and learning concept

6 June 2024

Turn Again, Starmer

Improving education.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Some of the least intelligent criticisms of Sir Keir Starmer focus on his changes of tack – the backing down from Labour’s green package, the reversal of their wealth tax proposal and other things besides. What is wrong with the man? Is he a changeling or merely vacillating and weak?

If they thought for a moment rather than just bleating on foolishly, the commentators who take this line would see the answer, for indeed it is an obvious one. Sir Keir is a practical politician seeking power for all the right reasons, but to be successful he had to satisfy two quite different audiences, one at a time, or “seratim” as the lawyers would say. First, he had to become leader of the Labour Party. That meant ingratiating himself with the activists, beardos and wierdos of the worst sort, people as long on flatulent principal as they are short on common sense. There was no point going to them with sensible policies. They want clarion calls: “Man the barricades!”, “À la lanterne les aristos!”, “Welcome all immigrants!”, “Nationalise more industries!”. Much of it is half-witted of course but these days you cannot become leader of the Labour Party without spouting it.

Then there is stage II. Having taken control of the party, he has to prepare it for the general election. The electorate are practical people and will not vote for an idiot, so most of the weirdo-pleasing policies have to be junked. Now it must be: “Work with industry!”, “Keep immigration under control!”, “Let those who create wealth enjoy it!”. The singer may be the same but the tunes are about a similar as “God Save the King” and “Twist and Shout”. Still, this is the switch Starmer has had to make to achieve power and his willingness to make it is a tribute to his competence and toughness and not a sign of vacillation.

The next stage will, of course, come when he is elected. Then his priority will be on good government not on short-term popularity. Will that be the occasion of further reversals? Let’s hope so because one of his party’s vaunted policies is so obviously damaging to the national interest that it needs to go firmly into the long grass. I refer, of course, to the proposal to charge VAT on private school fees.

The older reader will forever associate flyblown and garlic-encrusted tablecloths with France. That is because, in the years before Thatcher’s economic reforms, a Briton could only take £50 abroad under a system called “exchange control.” Between that and the appalling economic legacy of the post-war years, Britons abroad were by definition the poorest of the poor and the grim tables which they occupied in the corners of French cafés would have been scorned by other races. I do not wish to discuss the merits of the measures which lifted us out of that position save to say that I never wish to see my countrymen there again. Nowadays, however, it appears that the threat to national economic well-being depends not on the possibility of exchange control being reintroduced but on how our educational standards compare with those of others. Blair may have made his mistakes but on at least one thing he was right. The prosperity of the occupants of this small overcrowded island of ours depends on the expertise of the people and the key to that is “Education, Education, Education”. What then is the Labour Party’s plan to upgrade educational standards generally? Why, it is to suppress through taxation that part of the system which brings in the best results. Idiots!

When Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964, I was a pupil at Malvern, a private boarding school in the West Country and, on the election results being announced, the headmaster, the great Donald Lindsay no less, summoned the school to assembly to talk us through the implications for the private educational sector. It was visionary stuff.  The advantages enjoyed by the few would begin to benefit the many. It was a vision of a stronger, better-educated society, with the talents of all being developed and not just those of the children of the rich. Did it happen? Did it, hell! Instead of gradually merging the two systems, succeeding politicians abolished the grammar schools, the ladder by which clever children without money could access a top education. Most of what were the best grammars now sit in the private sector, serving the better off and leaving the state system shorn of its best schools. Well done, chaps!

Against this background, how should a government which really cares about educational standards reform the educational system? Penalising the private schools on the basis that the educational gains secured by spending the money on teachers in the state sector is unlikely to increase overall standards. A similar approach failed when the grammars were abolished and, in any case, experience tells us that to degrade something first-rate in order to prop up something less effective is an act of folly. No, the right approach is to spread the advantages of the private sector across the community. More state scholarships to top schools. More grouping of private and state schools. The introduction of in-between schools where the cost of education is split between parents and state. These are the approaches that Labour should be examining.

And yet Starmer seems wedded to his VAT. Perhaps he has to, to make himself electable. But he is not a fool and he must realise the damage he will do. Of course there is a need for new teachers in the state sector but he should finance them in other ways: an abolition of the triple lock for example, a wealth tax even, but to seek to improve educational standards by penalising the bit of the system which is most successful is clearly an act of folly.

Has he got the balls for more policy U-turns? I certainly hope so.

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