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The Labour Manifesto: Labour's mission to break down barriers to opportunity

Posted on 2 July 2024

Much like New Labour's claim in 1997 that 'education, education, education' would be the three highest priorities of a Labour Government, the current Labour Manifesto outlines 'Break down barriers to opportunity' as one of its five missions to rebuild Britain.

The conversation so far has understandably focused on the Labour Party's pledge to end the VAT exemption and business rates relief for private schools to invest in state schools. However, education and early years policy generally seems to be a key strategy for the party in winning back its 'red wall' seats in the Midlands and North of England. We take a look at the party's pitch to the electorate and explore Labour's manifesto commitments in this area.

The barriers to opportunity

Labour paints a bleak picture of an education system that is unable to cope, school leavers unequipped for the workplace, children arriving at school not ready to learn, and teachers leaving the profession in droves. Labour says that the Higher Education system is in 'crisis' and childcare and early education is both unaffordable and unavailable.

One standout figure pointed to by the Labour Party is that the number of children living in poverty has increased by 700,000. It is evident that the party believes this figure and messaging will gain traction in its former 'red wall' seats; an essential win for the party if they are to win a majority at the General Election on 4 July. Writing for The Northern Echo, a regional newspaper in the North East and North Yorkshire, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks of increases in child poverty, schools crumbling over children's heads, and of government 'failing young people'.

The Conservative Party dispute the figure of an additional 700,000 children in poverty. As far back as 2020, Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister, said in PMQs that Sir Keir Starmer was 'completely wrong in what he says about poverty'. More recently in May of this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in PMQs that his party has 'overseen a fall in poverty, but particularly child poverty, since 2010'.1

Break down barriers to opportunity

Labour outlines a series of pledges across three key areas of education reform: (1) giving children the best start in life; (2) raising school standards; and (3) reforming further and higher education.

  1. Best Start in Life

  • New Nurseries: Labour promises to open an additional 3,000 new nurseries by upgrading space in existing primary schools.
  • Review of Parental Leave: Labour has vowed to review the parental leave system in the first year of government to give parents the flexibility needed to care for their children.
  • Data Sharing: Perhaps one of the most significant changes is to increase data sharing across public sector services and provide children and families with a single unique identifier to avoid 'families falling through the cracks of public services'.
  1. Raising School Standards

  • Raise School Standards: Labour aims to fund state schools by removing VAT exemption and business rates relief for private schools.
  • Recruit Teachers: The party plans to recruit 6,500 new expert teachers to address shortages, particularly in subjects and areas with recruitment challenges, and improve teacher retention.
  • Support Staff: Reinstate the School Support Staff Negotiating Body (SSSNB) to tackle recruitment and retention issues in support roles.
  • Early Education in Numeracy and Early Language Intervention: Labour has vowed to emphasise numeracy in early education and fund early-language interventions in primary schools to address speech, language and communication needs.
  • Curriculum Review: The party has pledged to launch a review of school curricula and assessment. A national curriculum review is not atypical, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government conducted a similar review in 2010 with the aim of ensuring that schools and young people were internationally competitive. The Labour Party's focus is to ensure the curriculum is 'broad, inclusive, and innovative' with a 'balance of assessment methods'.
  • Costs of School: Consistent with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, Labour has pledged to fund free breakfast clubs in primary schools to both support parents and assist in children's readiness to learn at school. Similarly, the party say they will reduce the cost of school by limiting the number of branded uniform items required.
  • Mental Health Support: The party has committed to provide access to specialist mental health professionals in every school and establish 'Young Futures Hubs' to bring local services together and assist with community-based mental health support.
  1. Reforming Further and Higher Education

  • A Strategy for Post-16 Education: Labour vows to guarantee training, an apprenticeship, or help to find work for all 18-21 year olds.
  • Skills England: One of the most significant aspects of Labour's 'Industrial Strategy' is the party's commitment to establish Skills England. The new body will seek to collaborate with businesses, training providers, unions, and government for workforce training 'to oversee the national skills effort'. Skills England will also be granted funding autonomy with the party promising reform of the Apprenticeship Levy into a flexible Growth and Skills Levy allowing firms to spend up to 50% of the levy on non-apprenticeship training to tackle skills gaps with Skills England consulting on eligible courses.
  • Access to University: Labour intends to support individuals who meet the requirements and aspire to attend university and improve access to university more generally. One aspect of this plan is to further integrate further and higher education so as to regulate quality and facilitate student movement between FE and HE institutions.

Comparing to other parties' education pledges

Conservative Party

  • National Service:  This will be mandatory for all school leavers at 18, being given a choice of a placement in the military or civic service, intended to equip young people with skills and opportunities.
  • 100,000 high-quality apprenticeships: Conservatives intend to fund these apprenticeships by 'curbing the number of poor-quality university degrees that leave young people worse off'.
  • Ban the use of mobile phones during the school day: This will require schools to ban children from using mobile phones whilst at school.
  • Advanced British Standard: This is a Baccalaureate style qualification for 16-19 year olds to replace exiting A-Levels and T-Levels so that students select 'major' and 'minor' subjects. The aim being to allow students a broader education and remove the 'artificial divide' between academic (A-Level) and technical (T-Level) learning.
  • Childcare costs: Conservatives intend from September 2025 to provide working parents with 30 hours of free childcare a week from when their child is nine months old to when they start school, saving eligible families an average of £6,900 per year.

Liberal Democrats

  • Dedicated and qualified mental health professional in every primary and secondary school: Sharing Labour's focus on Manifesto, the Liberal Democrats intend for a mental health professional to be in every school, funded by a Digital Services Tax on social media firms and tech giants.
  • Increase school and college funding: This will be increased above the rate of investment and Liberal Democrats intend to invest in new school buildings and clear the backlog of repairs need to schools.
  • A 'Tutoring Guarantee' for every disadvantaged pupil who needs extra support
  • Close the attainment gap in early years education: The Liberal Democrats intend to give disadvantaged children, at ages 3 and 4, an extra five free hours of education a week and tripling the Early Years Premium to £1,000 a year.
  • Lifelong Skills Grant: The Liberal Democrats say they will give all adults £5,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives, with the aim of increasing this allowance to £10,000 when public finances allow.
  • Expand Free school meals to 900,000 children living in low-income households: The Liberal Democrats intend to extend this future to all children in primary school when finances allow.
  • Access to University: The Liberal Democrats intend to reinstate maintenance grants for disadvantaged students to ensure living costs are not a barrier to studying at university.

Concluding thoughts

Labour's educational reform agenda is focused on enhancing access to education for those from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds by investing in state schools, offering additional tuition, and bolstering mental health support for children who need it most- a stance largely aligned with the Liberal Democrats' pledges. In contrast, it appears the Conservative Party is taking, what some may view, as a more stringent approach to educational reform, through mandatory national service and culling the lowest performing degrees.

With the general election on the horizon, and the polls still indicating a potential Labour victory, we await to see whether Labour's education reforms will materialise.

For more news, analysis, and legal updates in the run up to the general election on 4 July, take a look at our General Election Hub.

It appears that the Conservative party are relying on statistics for 'absolute poverty' as a basis for its claims, as latest data from the Department for Work and Pensions shows the number of children in 'absolute poverty' after housing costs fell from 3.7 million in 2009/2010 to 3.6 million in 2022/23, while the number of children in 'relative poverty' after housing has increased since 2009/10, from 3.9 million to 4.2 million in 2022/23.

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