Here is a word that, with my long private education, I had not come across before until recently: oracy. Coined by the Birmingham University researcher Andrew Wilkinson in 1965, it means fluency and grammatical correctness in spoken speech – the commanding verbal self-confidence that throbs through the best private schools. It’s a key idea in Labour’s education initiative.
But let’s start earlier still. The most potent political intervention, you could argue, comes in the early years of life, when a growing brain is encouraged in a calm place, and led by an authoritative voice towards reading, music, numbers and art.
The shape of a life is formed early. Investment in early years learning isn’t airy fairy. It’s essential to how politics can reduce the gap between the poor and the better-off. Research published recently by teams from Cambridge and Warwick universities looked at how children who began to read for pleasure at a young age, between two and nine, for around 12 hours per week, differed from those who began to read for pleasure later, or never did.
The results are startling. The pleasure-readers had bigger brains – larger total brain areas and volumes – and enhanced cognitive performance (thought better, thought quicker) and enjoyed less stress, less depression and better sleep. They also spent less time staring at screens. Getting the young into disciplined spaces without distractions, where they will be mentally developed from the get-go, is the single biggest domestic achievement and contribution a government could make to national happiness.
That’s an important subject because of a great black cloud of depression hanging over politics in general. Writing in the Financial Times recently, Robert Shrimsley identified a “palpable lack of hope” as the big British problem ahead of the election. He quoted polling for the New Britain Project, featured by the New Statesman, which showed that nearly three in every five voters agreed that “nothing in Britain works any more” and that only a fifth of respondents thought politicians were able to solve Britain’s biggest problems.
He’s right. I feel this weak-kneed fatalism at the heart of British politics everywhere. Another poll this week suggested that seven in ten people thought that the principle of the NHS, free at the point of need, would be gone within a decade in favour of charging.
In Westminster, on the government side, there is an almost cheerful lassitude ahead of what ministers tell me privately they expect to be a devastating election verdict. Young, recently ambitious MPs are planning lives outside politics. As for Labour, which ought to be all energy and aspiration, there is a mix of justified unease and scepticism about the future. And this will get worse.
Here are three reasons why. First, as time runs out, and Rishi Sunak’s pledges unravel, and the polling stays dire, the Tories will go dirty and personal. And as we’ve already seen, Labour will reply as grimly. If you are cynical about politics, you’re going to have a great time sniggering.
Second, the Conservatives have been swiping many of the best Labour ideas – windfall taxes, a major investment plan for training GPs and nurses, tearing up the planning system to increase the connectivity of the National Grid. Although Labour could simply reply with a list of “our ideas swiped” and promise, “plenty more where those came from”, this tendency narrows the gap between the parties’ offers and must, therefore, increase scepticism about progressive change.
Third is the iron grip on Labour spending plans held by the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. She has been quite something. The pressures on her for a little spending here, and just a bit there, have been relentless. She hasn’t flinched. We all nurse little disappointments – I find it hard to swallow the decision not to offer free school meals to all primary school children in England.
Yet Reeves has made it much harder to attack Starmer’s Labour from the right. (By the way, do we think going for him as a serial liar is going to work well coming from the party of Boris Johnson? Taking one thing with another, we do not.)
[See also: Is there any hope for the Labour left?]
The huge dilemma left by Reeves’s orthodoxy will not, however, go away. How radical, how change-making, can a Labour government be if it’s determined to raise no more in taxes and borrow no more, at a time of collapsing, underinvested public services? All that burden of hopelessness explains why the final part of the Starmer missions, Labour’s plan for education, announced on 6 July at Gillingham, Medway, is its most important initiative before the general election.
The highlights include a new deal on teachers’ pay to keep more teachers in the profession for longer, with bonus incentives targeted at the big vacancy areas, in subjects such as geography, physics and maths. Labour has pledged around £2,400 per teacher to relieve the quiet crisis of teacher turnover in England. Vacancies have doubled in the past two years, with more than 40,000 teachers leaving their jobs in the last year. It’s to be funded by taxing private schools, although whether Reeves’s “securonomics” has the capacity to respond to what teachers want more broadly, is another matter.
But the most dramatic offer, which shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson compares to the creation of the NHS, is a national childcare guarantee: children from nine months onwards will be brought into the education system proper. Private providers will still be involved but parts of the 2006 Childcare Act will be repealed, so councils are no longer obliged to outsource preschool childcare. The current complicated and expensive system would be simplified.
Much of the funding will be paid for by redirecting the childcare funds in Jeremy Hunt’s Budget; and with many schools too big for today’s class sizes, around much of the country there is space free in them. If this produces even half the disciplined, effective environment for preschool Britons that Starmer and Phillipson promise, then it’s a momentous development.
Beyond this, the most high-profile proposals include, at long last, bringing the arts properly back into the national curriculum. All children will be expected to study music, drama or art before leaving school. Here too is where oracy comes in: even in the age of AI, verbal self-confidence is a key for millions of better lives.
Once more with feeling, this is not flibbertigibbet stuff: 20th century Britain exported culture, from the Beatles to great film-makers, genre-busting advertisers and designers, architects and screenwriters, around the world. Many of them, thanks to art and music teachers in state schools, and the postwar art colleges, came from poor families. They had transformed the look and sound of Britain by the Sixties. It can be done again.
Education reform ought to be seen as the great anti-hopelessness project. It also allows senior Labour people to talk frankly about their own origins: where they came from, and therefore why they are in politics.
Phillipson for instance, is from a single parent family in Washington, south of Newcastle, never knew her father, and her family was reliant on benefits growing up. She was 13 when Tony Blair came to power and thanks to an excellent state school, got to Oxford. Like Starmer and his parents, or the East End odyssey of Wes Streeting, these are not breast-beating “poor me” class-misery stories. They are, like a former Labour leader’s “first Kinnock in a thousand generations to get to university”, political morality tales about aspiration, hard work, and above all the importance of great state education.
Even simply telling them has an effect. It’s the best answer yet to that endlessly potent question “Who are you lot, and why should we trust you?” As Labour moves nearer towards power, and the distractions and heckles grow louder, the most important thing to offer is hope.
[See also: Labour’s Remainers are getting organised]
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia