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It’s not just private schools that Labour has in its sights

Starmer’s promise to ‘modernise’ the curriculum will turn schools into sites of social engineering.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

Topics Politics UK

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Anxious parents can rest easy, apparently. Keir Starmer declared earlier this week that a Labour government will not allow gender ideology to be taught in schools. He will not overturn the recently announced ban on teaching children that there are more than two genders and that everyone has a ‘gender identity’ distinct from their sex. So that’s Labour’s policy. At least for this week anyway.

Last week, education secretary-in-waiting, Bridget Phillipson, repeatedly refused to rule out any such ban. She described the Tories’ current guidance for schools as ‘partisan’ and criticised its ‘unnecessary language’. ‘There are trans people within society and their existence should be recognised’, she told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday. She also recently stated that transwomen with penises should be able to use women’s toilets. So which is it to be? Under a Labour government, will children spend time colouring in ‘genderbread people’? Will they be asked to locate themselves on a gender spectrum with GI Joe at one end and Barbie at the other? Will they be given advice on breast-binding? In short, will they start school knowing that they are a girl or a boy, but emerge seeking surgery to change gender? Or will they not?

The Labour Party does not have a clear answer. It’s not just that Starmer says one thing and Phillipson another. Or that Starmer says one thing on a Thursday and something entirely different on a Tuesday. The problem is that even when he talks about this subject, he gives no indication of understanding what ‘gender ideology’ actually is and why it is harmful for children and damaging to education. Let’s not forget, this is a man who has spent the past few years struggling to define the word ‘woman’. His party now proposes both to uphold the Cass Review of gender services for children and to introduce a full ban on conversion therapy – despite the fact that such a ban would overturn many of Cass’s key recommendations.

Just as concerning, Starmer’s Labour Party seems to have no sense of schools as places primarily concerned with education. The party’s flagship schools policies include the much discussed addition of VAT on private-school fees, free breakfast clubs in every primary school, and lessons in tooth-brushing for the youngest children. These proposals tell us nothing about what pupils should actually be taught. Labour promises to hire more teachers, but if the primary purpose of schools is really to provide breakfast and get children to brush their teeth, the next government could easily cut costs and recruit 6,500 childcare assistants instead.

The Labour Party also wants schools to have specialist mental-health professionals so ‘every young person has access to early support to address problems before they escalate’. Schools already employ a wide range of therapeutic methods in the classroom, from meditation to circle time, from ‘emotional registers’ to worry boxes and yoga. Yet what’s notable is that the decades-long rise of therapeutic education has not led to a decline in the number of children diagnosed with mental-health problems. On the contrary, the rise of classroom counselling has been mirrored by a huge growth in children reported to be suffering from anxiety or depression. Mental-health professionals in every school, constantly checking in with children and reminding them ‘it’s okay to not be okay’, will further accelerate this trend.

Taken together, breakfast clubs, counsellors and tooth-brushing transform schools from educational institutions to centres for health and social care. The purpose is child welfare, not the transmission of knowledge.

Labour’s plan to put VAT on private-schools has been cheered on by some as striking a blow against privilege and elitism, while critics have warned that it will price middle-class children out of the private-school market and force the closure of much-loved local schools. But it is so much worse than that, when taken alongside Labour’s other plans for schools. Undermining private schools while transforming state schools into social-welfare centres is an attack on intellectual ambition as much as social aspiration. It is a phoney egalitarianism – a performance of shouty class politics rather than a serious attempt to raise standards for all children.

Back in the 1960s, then Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland also proposed taxing school fees. He argued that ‘once the state system is strong enough to compete’, then ‘if parents want to send their children to some inferior fee-paying school for purely snobbish reasons, that’s their affair’. Today’s Labour Party has abandoned the ambition of making state schools ‘strong enough to compete’.

Instead, Starmer promises to ‘modernise the school curriculum’ and ‘to build on the hard work of teachers who have brought their subjects alive with knowledge-rich syllabuses, to deliver a curriculum which is rich and broad, inclusive and innovative’. This hits all the educational buzzwords. But ‘inclusive’ often means the opposite of ‘excellence’ and ‘innovative’ is usually code for removing vital subject knowledge or abandoning the canon. The detail, such as it is, suggests that ‘modernising the curriculum’ involves yet more focus on skills (we can now add ‘oracy’ to numeracy and literacy) and a greater emphasis on future employability. All of which comes at the expense of the very purpose of education – namely, the transmission of knowledge to the younger generation.

The past century tells us that every time education is ‘modernised’, knowledge goes out and politics comes in. So it’s not surprising that alongside improved ‘careers advice’, Labour wants schools to ‘address misogyny and teach young people about healthy relationships and consent’.

Given Labour’s approach to education, a specific ban on promoting gender ideology in the classroom is meaningless. As schools become intellectually hollowed out, more and more classroom time will be given over to political goals concerned with social welfare, inclusion and the affirmation of identity, rather than educating children. It’s not just private schools that will be in trouble under Labour.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and author of How Woke Won. She is a visiting fellow at MCC Budapest.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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