This article was originally published in The House magazine. To read the original click here.
“I’ve always been aware that I’ve been very lucky in many ways,” says Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary.
“But what motivates me is that I don’t believe life should come down to luck.”
That is, rather succinctly, the ethos with which she is approaching the education brief.
Growing up in Washington, a former mining town between Sunderland and Newcastle in Tyne and Wear, she lived between a disused railway line and an industrial wasteland. Lots of children from her area ended up trapped in a cycle of crime or unemployment.
“Kids from working class backgrounds often don’t get a second chance. If you’re better off, often your parents can step in, they can provide money, they can give you those opportunities. But for lots of kids from communities like mine, they only get one chance at it,” she says.
What she has made of that chance: a recipient of free school meals, whose family relied on benefits for a number of years; raised by a single mum, Clare, along with her grandparents; went to Oxford university; ran a refuge that her mother founded; entered Parliament as the MP for Houghton and Sunderland South aged only 26, the same age Phillipson’s mother was pregnant with her; and now one of Labour’s rising stars.
The shadow education secretary, 39, is widely respected as competent and thoughtful but is also seen as a bit withdrawn.
When she was younger, Phillipson was a model pupil in a school that – structurally at least – was anything but. There were props supporting the school throughout the main building, effectively condemned, she says, meaning lessons were taught in portacabins.
“I definitely did not prefer the portacabin,” Phillipson jokes, in reference to Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s remarks that students had told her they “prefer them to the classroom”.
Phillipson says: “In the winter, the school had a fairly rigid uniform policy but they allowed us in the portacabins to wear our coats in the winter. It was so cold in there.”
She momentarily drops her guard as she recalls a bonus of the temporary structures, and offers a fleeting glimpse of mischief.
“Around the side of the portacabins was also quite a good spot for the kids to hide behind!”
The shadow education secretary says she would not accept her own children having to study in portacabins (she has a daughter, age 11, and a son, age 7, with her husband Lawrence, who works in financial services) and slams Rishi Sunak for what she sees as hypocrisy: “I don’t think politicians should be prepared to tolerate for other people’s children what they wouldn’t accept for their own.
“I think you see that from the Prime Minister, who, when he was chancellor, cancelled a whole host of school rebuilding programmes and is prepared to accept thousands of children having remote learning, disruption to their education or being in portacabins for years to come.”
Her next concern is that, should Labour win the election, she says “we will face major problems across the school estate, RAAC being one of them, asbestos, drainage, insulation issues… it will take us time to put this right.”
Throughout our interview, the shadow education secretary is extremely cautious about making any cost commitments: “We’ll be constrained in terms of what we can do with the economy as it is in a terrible mess. We’ll face some tough choices about what we can and can’t do.”
One thing Phillipson highlights that doesn’t cost money, instead helping parents save, is restricting the number of branded items schools can have as part of their uniform policy.
“I think having a smart school uniform is really important but, given the cost pressures and the cost of living crisis, we need to bring down those costs,” she says.
“I might not have thought this at the time, but what was great about my school uniform in secondary school was that it was smart, traditional style, a blazer and tie. But there wasn’t a requirement for expensive branded kit.”
The shadow education secretary jokes: “We pushed the boundaries like all children do, rolling our skirts up, but we looked smart.”
Phillipson is still in touch with her Spanish teacher, Miss Haq: “She was amazing.” Now a headteacher in County Durham, they contact each other regularly. Having a good relationship with teachers and school leaders, she says, would be key if she became education secretary: “I want to rebuild that relationship between government and the profession on the basis of trust.”
Right now, that relationship is “fractured”, she says, leading to issues with teacher recruitment and retention and, in turn, affecting the quality of education schoolchildren are receiving.
“Too many children are being taught by teachers who are not expert in their field. They’re doing their best but one in 10 maths lessons are being taught by a non maths specialist, and it is one in four when it comes to physics. That’s not good enough. I wouldn’t accept that for my children. I don’t want it for kids across our country, either.”
To drive higher standards across education, Phillipson wants to see a better connection between early years and schools to push past the “fragmentation” that exists now.
What would that actually look like? The shadow education secretary is coy about her plans being revealed “closer to the election” but adds: “A first step is with councils and removing the bar around councils not being able to create provision where there is a need within their community.”
She is taking inspiration from three other countries for her childcare and early years offering: Estonia, where there is “really effective integration of early years education into the schools system”; Australia and their “reform around driving up standards alongside a different model of how you approach funding”; and Ireland who are “doing some interesting work around raising standards in the sector, too”.
In flagging Australia’s funding model, the shadow education secretary is giving the strongest hint yet that the British Labour model will be led by the same approach as their Aussie counterparts – and overhaul the subsidy system.
Key to Labor’s model was a $4bn plan to reform childcare subsidies, lifting the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent for the first child in care, with all families earning up to $530,000 (£277,300) benefitting.
They also pledged to hike the 85 per cent subsidy rate available to low-income families earning up to $69,527 (£36,400) to 100 per cent and raise the rate by 10 per cent for those with family incomes between $69,527 and $174,527 (£91,300), which Phillipson recognises as “an important part of what they successfully argued in the election where Labor won power” after nine years in opposition.
Phillipson has been part of the long march in opposition since 2010, mostly away from the frontbenches, on the wrong side of a toxic argument (supporting Remain during Brexit in a Leave-voting seat), reviled for not backing Jeremy Corbyn and seeing colleagues flee the party over it. Did she ever find herself wanting to leave?
“There are always highs and lows in politics but I always wanted to be a part of turning things around so I never questioned that. There were times when I felt that the Labour Party was certainly not on the right path and we’d lost touch with the voters. But we have turned that around.”
During this time, in a number of articles for the New Statesman, she set out her stall on a selection of policy areas, including education. Together they almost make a mini-manifesto.
In one she asked, “What should schools be teaching that they aren’t now? What sorts of skills might we want people to learn at school that we don’t now?”
Phillipson is reluctant to answer her own question. “Labour would have an expert review of curriculum and assessment. I do think it’s right that given that would be a serious and detailed piece of work, that I want to get right, we would take the time to do it properly and carefully.
“As an interim measure I want to make sure that all young people get access to music, sport, art and drama.”
That will involve “broadening the accountability measures” to ensure schools are providing these options but what exactly that means is unclear.
What she doesn’t want to see is “politicians picking a fight about which books they do or don’t like, or which poetry they enjoyed as a child”.
The ‘culture wars’ are something that Phillipson takes issue with, especially what she sees as a fanning of flames at universities.
“The ability for young people and people in universities to engage, debate and discuss ideas is really important. What the government’s legislation, however, enables is hate speech on campus. It opens the door to antisemites, hate preachers and I think presents big safeguarding issues for universities,” the shadow education secretary adds.
Something we haven’t heard Phillipson on is the plummeting pupil numbers in English schools, set to shrink by almost a million in the next decade. What is Labour’s plan to handle this transition? Phillipson says that dealing with it is made more difficult by “a fragmented landscape when it comes to schools”, with an “ill-defined role for local authorities in managing that process”.
Labour would target key areas from across the country “where the demographics are moving more quickly” and, the shadow education secretary gives her biggest hint at the idea of school mergers, saying “we will need to think creatively about how we make best use of any buildings or spaces that are no longer required in the way that they once were”.
Phillipson adds: “We will need to find a way of encouraging schools to collaborate more effectively.”
When it comes to the future of universities, the shadow education secretary is upfront with the issue of the higher education sector’s funding model – and its reliance on fees from foreign students: “I do recognise that universities are becoming increasingly dependent upon the revenue that generates.” But she does not say what she would do about it.
Phillipson feels for young people who are contending with the cost of living pressures alongside their studying: “They’re often working more hours than they probably should in retail or bar work, because the costs are so high – and that has an impact on their studies… it’s young people from where there isn’t a family history of going to university who are often on the sharp end of that.”
She rejects the idea that it is a Conservative message and not a Labour argument to want to give people more freedom, control and money in their pocket: “I think it’s the Labour Party that recognises that we need to provide economic security which allows people to have more control, greater freedom in their lives and, actually, the state can be a great enabler in that.”
The current Labour leadership, which is so often paralleled with New Labour, has rejected one of its key tenets of avoiding socio-economic divides by finding a new way of talking about class – and Phillipson is one of those at the helm of this development. While Tony Blair once said in 1999 that “the class war is over”, Phillipson in 2023 was the inspiration behind Labour leader Keir Starmer’s vow to use education to shatter the “class ceiling”.
“There are many of us in the shadow cabinet who are very comfortable talking about our background, about class,” she says.
“We’re proud of where we’re from. Proud of our roots but determined that the next generation get more opportunities.”
Phillipson, sadly, believes that “it is no longer true” for many children that “if you work hard, you’ll have every chance and enjoy greater opportunities than the generation before”.
The shadow education secretary adds that “too often still in Britain, [it is] where you are from that determines what you can go on to achieve”.
“Breaking down barriers” is Phillipson’s slogan; perhaps that is another one she will be able to knock down.