Wes Streeting can’t claim to be his inner-city comp’s most famous alumni. That claim goes to the Hollywood actor John Boyega who, like the shadow child poverty secretary, also came from a council estate and went on to Westminster City school, which was in special measures during Streeting’s time.
Now, Streeting says, opportunities are rapidly diminishing for state school pupils like them. His own school has had to make hard choices about funding extracurricular activities, meaning after-school drama there – despite its Star Wars-famed alumnus – has been a casualty.
Westminster City school is not alone. Analysis by Labour reveals extracurricular activities – sport, music, school trips and drama – have been in freefall over the past decade of Conservative government, particularly for primary-age children.
The research, pre-dating the pandemic, shows the arts have been particularly hit, with a 47% decrease in theatre and drama and a 36% drop in music participation. Competitive sport is down by 13% and there are similar decreases for participation in visits to heritage sites, museums and libraries.
Labour said the study, which looked at the government’s Taking Part Survey data over 10 years, showed the poorest children were likely to suffer most, when analysed alongside the Social Mobility Commission report An Unequal Playing Field.
The party will promise in government to offer children “Ten by ten” – 10 life-changing extracurricular experiences by the age of 10, including overnight trips, swimming and music lessons.
Streeting said government cuts meant life-changing opportunities were being missed as well as activities that could help heal some of the damage to pupils’ mental health during the pandemic.
“When I was at a tough inner-city school, drama gave me a friendship group. It’s been so core to who I am and given me such confidence later in life. I went back to my old secondary school last year and it’s had to make some difficult choices,” Streeting said. “Don’t tell me the private Westminster school, up the road, is making those kind of choices.”
Streeting was given his child poverty role in the shadow cabinet shortly after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer this year. At 38, he is one of the youngest in Keir Starmer’s team and the diagnosis came as a huge shock.
“I got my diagnosis in April when I was out on the local elections campaign trail, just before the snow and hail came down,” he said. “The Labour activists had no idea I was ill but also no idea how much they helped get me through it. I didn’t have to think about cancer for a while.”
Streeting’s doctors had told him cancer was extremely unlikely at his age. At the start of his treatment, he tried to keep working. “I did a bit of phone canvassing for [the byelection in] Hartlepool from bed, but I had to give up.” He is now recovered – minus one kidney – and back working full-time.
On the outside, Streeting is a polished politician, a highly experienced organiser who came through student union politics and won the marginal seat of Ilford North in 2015. His promotion was seen by some as proof that the anti-Corbyn centre-left wing of the party was firmly in the ascendancy under Starmer; Streeting has been forthright in his criticism of the party’s left.
But his background is the exception in Westminster, and in the Labour party. “I grew up in poverty as a child, my parents had me when they were very young. They didn’t have money growing up. My mum was a lone parent at the age of 18, bringing up a son in the 1980s. The benefits system put food in the fridge,” Streeting said.
“I used to think I was really unlucky in a council flat in Stepney [in east London]. It was not a nice place and I did not want to bring friends back home. I felt stigma and shame about it. But at least I had a council flat. Kids growing up in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation don’t have that. Our society has moved backwards under the last 10 years of Tory government.”
Despite Streeting’s unflinching criticism of Corbyn, the former Labour leader proposed a similar policy – new backing for arts in schools and help to let all children learn an instrument. The policy was mocked in the tabloid press.
Streeting said the snobbery was revealing. “You are churning out of independent schools children who have a confidence that it’s their birthright to be cabinet ministers, newspaper editors, stars of screen and stage, because they’ve had that possibility inculcated to them at an early age.
“And then the moment you start talking about music and drama and sport in state schools, some people on the right will sneer about how it isn’t about rigorous academics. The hypocrisy is nauseating.”
Streeting says he believes Labour can still win a majority, but rebuffs critics who say the party must ramp up its criticism of the Conservatives. “I think we’ve had a good go over the last decade of saying: things are terrible, vote Labour. People aren’t going to vote for miserable gits in the corner saying how awful everything is,” he said.
“There is a majority out there to be won by the Labour party. It is not going to just come to us because of Tory failure, we have to inspire in people that Labour can do better.”