The shadow education secretary recalls how Labour’s investment in education helped her through school as a child in poverty
When we meet in the chill of Westminster Hall, Bridget Phillipson is fresh from a morning round of media interviews about Sue Gray’s much anticipated report and “partygate”. A rowdy session of prime minister’s questions has just finished and the latest government scandal involving the emergency evacuation of animals from Afghanistan is starting to take off.
She has taken over the role of shadow education secretary at a time of huge political turbulence, but Phillipson’s focus on her brief is laser-sharp and heartfelt, thanks perhaps to her own experiences growing up, raised by a single mother in a council house in Washington, Tyne and Wear.
“Education is my real passion,” she says, “because the great education I had at local state schools just completely transformed my life.” She excelled in her exams, went to Oxford University, where she studied modern history, and in 2010 was elected as Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South. She wants every child to have the same opportunity to thrive – whatever their background – and believes education is the great enabler.
Life was sometimes tough for Phillipson when she was growing up. It has previously been reported how a neighbour, having seen seven-year-old Bridget playing outside in a jumper in mid-winter, pushed an envelope of money through the letterbox marked, “For Bridget’s coat”. Her mother, who helped found a local domestic abuse charity, was a member of the Labour party and her daughter would play under the table when she took her to meetings.
“My mam brought me up on her own, so life was often quite hard for her as a single parent. We didn’t always have it easy but I was from a family where I was supported to read, where education was valued and encouraged and I look back now and feel how fortunate I’ve been. But I don’t believe life should come down to luck. And that’s where government should come in.
“I saw the constraining impact of poverty and how so many children and families were let down by a government that just wasn’t interested in their lives. Many of the people I grew up with didn’t have the same opportunities that I was able to enjoy. But all too often children are held back by virtue of where they’re born, their circumstances and family background, and my priority as secretary of state would be to see that change.”
When Phillipson was in primary school, the Conservatives were in power. “That was the point at which in the 80s and early 90s school resources were under immense pressure, when buildings were in disrepair, and where child poverty and unemployment locally were incredibly high, and life was really tough for a lot of families.”
She went on to St Robert of Newminster Catholic school (other former pupils include the England men’s football team’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and Hairy Biker Si King). When she was in year 8, Labour took office. A member of the Labour party from the age of 15, Phillipson says she began to see changes take effect as Tony Blair’s mantra of “education, education, education” started to make itself felt in schools across the country.
“It was a really wonderful school,” she says. “We were really encouraged to aim high and we were valued as people, and I think that ethos of the school has always stayed with me.
“I was one of those young people who received education maintenance allowance (EMA), which just made it so much easier to stay on and study. My mother would have killed me if hadn’t stayed on anyway, but for many young people I was at sixth form with it made all the difference.
“It meant they were able to get to school, they could cover travel costs, they could afford equipment and to be able to go on trips. It made a massive difference.” EMA was scrapped by the coalition government in 2010.
“But also the investment that started to filter through into our schools,” says Phillipson, “the resources, the support that was given to teachers, the priority that Labour attached in government to making sure that teachers were well supported, with chances to take on new skills and develop throughout their working lives.”
Phillipson, who has two children of her own, aged 10 and six, wants education to be at the heart of Labour’s offer once again, and never has it been more urgent after two years of disrupted learning because of Covid, which has put the poorest children at even greater disadvantage. “Like all parents, trying to combine working and home schooling [during lockdown] was a bit of a juggle, but I’m fortunate in that we had access to technology and I was able to help.
“But I know from my community that lots of families didn’t have access to devices, didn’t have access to broadband, and the government’s plans around that were far too slow and meant that [children’s] learning, particularly in those early months, wasn’t as it should have been.”
The government says it has invested £5bn in education recovery, including the launch of the national tutoring programme. Labour, Phillipson says, has set out a far more ambitious plan for children’s recovery – a £14.7bn catchup strategy, including breakfast clubs for every child, mental health support, and more small-group tutoring for pupils who need it.
For the Conservatives, she says, children have been little more than an afterthought during the pandemic. “If I’d been secretary of state on the day that schools closed to most children, I would have been completely focused on making sure we had a plan for what came next. And yet here we are almost two years on and parents tell me they don’t even know that there is any kind of catchup plan for their children and the tutoring programme is reaching a dismal number of children.”
It has far-reaching implications, she says. “What is often overlooked in the discussion around children’s catchup is that it matters for individual children and families but it also matters for all of us as a country. The evidence is very clear about the longer-term damage that will be caused to our economy, to wider society, to the earning potential of young people, to their opportunities and life chances, if we don’t invest now and get this right, which is why we’ve said we will make this a priority.
“The government, however, have vacated the field. They seem completely lacking in any real interest in putting in place that kind of plan. They point to gimmicks and headlines, but that’s not a proper plan for our children.”
Phillipson says her priorities as education secretary would be to address the widening attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier peers, to tackle child poverty and the growing cost of living crisis for families, and ensure that every parent can send their child to a great local school. She is currently travelling around England, visiting schools and colleges to find out what is working and what is not – the day after our interview she is off to Blackburn.
She is not keen to talk about selection and grammar schools, or interested in discussing school structures. On academies, she is concerned about accountability and transparency in multi-academy trusts, but is not in the business of causing upheaval where parents are happy with their child’s education, she says. She is committed to Labour’s promise to scrap charitable status for private schools, but unwilling to go beyond that. “All parents want the best for their children so I’m not going to criticise individual parents for the decisions that they make.”
On school inspection, she would like it to be more collaborative than punitive. “Ofsted has an important role in driving up standards for all of our children but I think we need to look at getting the balance right.” And she is worried about schools having to step in to provide food parcels and wash children’s clothes as the cost of living crisis continues to bite. “It’s wonderful that they do that, but that is not a core function of our schools and I want teachers and staff to be able to focus on delivering that brilliant education that they came into teaching to deliver.
“We’re going to see hundreds of thousands of young people leaving school this year having had next to no additional support provided by the government. Schools have stepped in. They are doing all they can to make up for as much time as possible, but they don’t feel the government’s got their back.”
She says Labour would be different. “We recognise the value of education. We know how important it is to the success of our country and we will always make sure that our schools and the wider sector are recognised, valued and supported.”
This article was originally published in The Guardian