Born to teenage parents and brought up in poverty, Wes Streeting, the new shadow schools minister, sees himself as a “proper Labour story”, of how a working-class lad from a council estate can get to one of the finest universities in the world (he studied history at Cambridge) and become an MP. He intends to throw every atom of his energy into making sure that under a future Labour government, the system will offer the same opportunities to every child, including those from poor homes, like his, and those with special educational needs that are not being met under the present government.
To underline the point, he chose to conduct his first major interview at Westminster City school, the boys’ state school in London he attended in the 90s.
With his background, and a known interest in education, he seems an obvious choice for the schools portfolio. But his appointment will not necessarily please those in the Labour party who champion the key ideas of the 2019 election manifesto, in particular its promise to bring free schools and academies under the control of parents, teachers and local communities and allow councils to run admissions and open new schools. This is not something its new shadow minister is prepared to promise.
Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader, did not actively pursue that policy anyway, says Streeting. “Jeremy is passionate about education and no fan of free schools or academies, but it was also very clear that he wasn’t going to try to unscramble the system. I think that is because of the amount of time and money it would cost to do that. You could throw vast amounts of public money at it and not make a difference to a single child,” he says.
“In my constituency I’ve got local authority schools, free schools, academies, I’ve got a grammar school, I’ve got independent schools that aren’t far away – and the interesting thing is, whether I am walking into a local authority school or a free school or an academy, the name above the door matters less than what goes on inside the building. I think we would all agree that we wouldn’t start from here if we were designing an education system but this is where we are, and we have to make the system work. For example, I would like to see much more collaboration between different types of schools,” he says.
His main criticism of Tory education policy is that it has been ideological, often doing things contrary to the evidence of what works. “Closing the attainment gap for GCSE performance has not only stalled, it has begun to widen. When you look at pupils arriving at school at age five, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average 4.5 months behind their more affluent peers. When you go to GCSE that gap has widened to 18 months. The government has put everything into reverse gear with its ideological approach and funding cuts, and if we are not careful this pandemic is going to make it worse,” he says.
“Anyway,” he continues, as he shouts out a warm greeting to Miss World, his former maths teacher and head of year 8, “our approach now, especially having lost the last election so badly, is to go back to first principles and have a really good conversation with the entire profession about curriculum, about accountability, assessment, and to make sure we are standing at the next election on a manifesto that has a vision for a 21st-century education system.”
Corbyn’s idea of a national education service appears to have hit the dust, as far as he is concerned. It was partly about lifelong learning, which is a goal Streeting believes in, but it was a “slogan” that failed to resonate with voters.
He believes the 2019 manifesto was not nearly ambitious enough on tackling poverty – in particular, child poverty – and that is where education should be playing a key role.
Before being elected to represent Ilford North in 2015 Streeting was chief executive of the Helena Kennedy foundation, which helps students from further education to get to university, and head of education at Stonewall, the LGBT rights charity. At university, he joined Labour students and was elected as president of the National Union of Students in 2008.
The new shadow minister has plenty of ideas for the future, but for now he is concentrating on what can be done to support teachers and heads during the pandemic. “Education has been an afterthought for this government when it should have been a priority, and that has stored up big problems for the future,” he says. “I cannot understand why Rishi Sunak was photographed barely a mile up the road at Wagamama to promote ‘eat out to help out’ but couldn’t find money to feed children from disadvantaged backgrounds in schools like this,” he adds.
His face darkens when he recalls remarks by Tory MPs about “chaotic” parents who send their children to school without breakfast, and suggestions that money from school vouchers risks being spent in “crack dens and brothels”. “It shouldn’t take Marcus Rashford or Labour MPs to persuade the Tories that feeding hungry children is a priority for the state, and where parents can’t feed their children we as a society have a responsibility to step in.”
As a boy who qualified for free school meals, he knows what a difference they made. “I was born in Stepney, in Tower Hamlets, and I think it is fair to say that I was an accident. My father was 17 when I was born and my mother was 18, and their relationship did not last,” he says. He spent the first 11 years of his childhood with his mother in a council flat and then moved to live with his father. His mother had also had a hard childhood, with her father in and out of prison, and had left school without any qualifications. She juggled different jobs to make ends meet, working as a silver service waitress, behind the bar, on market stalls and now as a cleaner.
Did he ever go hungry? “My mum would have gone hungry before I would go hungry. We had a big east end family network to help us. I used to joke with my mum: ‘are we going to Sainsbury’s or are we going to nan’s?’, because there would be times when my mum didn’t have any money, and we would walk half an hour from Stepney to Wapping, where my nan let her raid the fridge and cupboards,” he recalls.
“I used to think I was really unlucky. There was a mix of white kids and Bangladeshi kids at my primary school, and the white kids were divided between those from the council estates like me and those from the regeneration of the Docklands. Our council flat was not a nice place, and I was too embarrassed to bring friends back, but I went to their homes and saw the sort of places they lived in. As a result, I had an acute sense of my own disadvantage,” he says. But at least he had a permanent roof over his head, unlike children he meets in his constituency nowadays, shunted around temporary accommodation and hostels.
He did well at school and thinks it was partly because his mother put up a shelf in his bedroom and filled it with books, which inspired him to become an avid reader. But secondary schools in Tower Hamlets at the time did not have a good reputation and Mrs Dodd, his “brilliant” primary head, suggested he go across the borough boundary to City of Westminster school. “My mother loved the name of it, it sounded impressive,” he says. But just as he arrived, it was put into special measures. Although he had some inspirational teachers who went out of their way to support and look out for him, some were more able to keep discipline than others and student behaviour was often rowdy and sometimes violent.
A clever boy who was mad about drama, he was picked on. “Some of the bullying had a homophobic strand,” he says, though he hadn’t come out at the time. “I hadn’t even accepted or admitted to myself that I was gay, let alone told anyone else. I didn’t come out until I was at university, partly because of anxiety around my faith, as a Christian. I’ve been back to this school several times recently and the behaviour is very different,” he says.
The schools portfolio is his dream, not only because of the debt he feels to state education, but also because he sees schools as central to Keir Starmer’s vision of making the UK the best country to grow up in and grow old in. Education is the key to breaking the cycle of long-term deprivation and dependency passed down between generations, he says, and that’s something he has witnessed first hand.”
Told to Liz Lightfoot for The Guardian.