KEIR Starmer has declined to commit to extending free school meals to all primary school children, saying “money is a big factor” in the decision.

The Labour leader has faced calls to feed all children in England after leaders in London and Wales introduced local programmes, while the Scottish Government also plans to introduce universal schemes.

Starmer has pledged to smash the “class ceiling” if his party wins the next election, as he sets out plans to reform the education system in a major speech.

Touring broadcast studios ahead of the address, it was put to him that his goals would be better achieved with free school meals, which campaigners say lead to better outcomes in the classroom.

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But Starmer, who has made financial responsibility central to his plan to win the next election, said “the money is a big factor” as Labour would inherit “a broken economy”.

“We do have to have very, very strong rules about what we can afford to spend and what we can’t,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said there is a “healthy debate” within his party on the issue, adding: “We’ve set out our position which is breakfast clubs for every child, which will make a material difference.”

Starmer also declined to commit to giving teachers in England a 6.5% pay rise this year – the figure reportedly recommended by the profession’s pay review body.

He told BBC Breakfast: “I’m not going to commit to a particular figure. I will wait and see what that review body says. But I’ll tell you what, if we were in power, we’d be in the room negotiating this.

“I think they’ve made their proposals with the Government. The Government is sitting on it, which is unforgivable, because we need to resolve this strike.”

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In his speech in Gillingham on Thursday, the Labour leader will set a goal of half a million more children in England reaching early learning targets by 2030 as he expands on the party’s intention to improve teaching for under-fives.

The speech will focus on the last of the five missions set by the party, which is well ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls – a pledge to “break down barriers to opportunity”.

In an article for The Times, Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, said a Labour government would put more focus on pupils’ speaking abilities as part of efforts to help youngsters with future careers and life skills.

He said it was “short-sighted” that the current curriculum was not delivering oracy skills.

“An inability to articulate yourself fluently is a key barrier to getting on and thriving in life,” wrote the qualified barrister.

“It’s key to doing well in that crucial job interview, persuading a business to give you a refund, telling your friend something awkward. Oracy is a skill that can and must be taught.”

Education groups and unions welcomed Labour’s proposals, but said they must be matched by significant extra investment.

Paul Whiteman, National Association of Headteachers general secretary, said: “Fixing the current recruitment and retention crisis has to be an urgent priority and it is essential that the next government makes teaching and school leadership an attractive proposition once again and gets to grips with the factors driving so many out of the profession.

“However, inequalities are deeply entrenched in society, and if these ambitions are to be fulfilled, significant additional investment will be needed not only in education, which has been neglected for too long, but also in community support for families including everything from mental health services to social care.”

The National: Skills minister Gillian Keegan

Meanwhile, Tory Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (above) said recent U-turns on policy proposals by Starmer's party meant there could be “no guarantee” that his education reforms would come to fruition.

She said: “Labour offers nothing but flip flop after flip flop, from tax hikes to tuition fees – showing there is no guarantee that they will even stick to their word.

“Keir Starmer’s track record shows he will have probably changed his mind by the start of the summer holidays. So there’s no way parents and teachers can rely on anything he says.”