The shadow education secretary talks about ‘aspirational’ teachers, her inspirational grandad and the challenges for schools during the pandemic
Bridget Phillipson is the MP for Houghton and Sunderland South. In November she was appointed as shadow education secretary after Labour leader Keir Starmer’s reshuffle, taking the helm from Kate Green MP. She talks about how her school challenged students to aim higher and believe in themselves and how her grandparents instilled in her a love of reading.
1. Who was your most memorable teacher and why?
I had so many amazing teachers it seems a bit invidious to pick anyone out, but I suppose I would give a special mention to the deputy head at my secondary school, Mr Hurst. He was one of those teachers everyone respected, perhaps feared a bit, but I knew he was on our side.
I remember as a sixth-former getting a note in class to go and see him as soon as possible. I was worried. It turned out there was a visit being arranged from school to an open day for Oxford University, and I hadn’t put my name down for it, and he wanted me to go and to think of applying. For so many kids like me, he was fiercely ambitious and aspirational on our behalf, challenging us to aim higher and believe in ourselves. That ethos ran throughout the school.
2. What were the best and worst things about your time at school?
The best were the teachers – that ambition and determination to see us succeed ran right through the school. The worst was the dismal resourcing: my time at school began almost a decade into a Conservative government and buildings needed repairs everywhere, and there were never enough books to go round.
What was happening in school couldn’t be separated from real problems we faced: very high levels of youth unemployment, rising crime and children growing up in avoidable poverty. I was fortunate, but no one’s life chances should be a matter of luck.
3. Why do you work in education?
Education is probably the single most important way we can build a better future for our people and for our country. It changed my life for the better in so many ways, and I want that for every child in every corner of our country. I’m so proud to have been asked by Keir Starmer to be shadow secretary of state for education. It is a real honour.
4. What are you proudest of in your career and what do you regret?
The frustration of being in opposition is that you don’t get to achieve nearly as much as you would in power, and that’s why my first priority is seeing Labour in government. My greatest regret is that Labour hasn’t been able to achieve much in the 12 years I’ve been in Parliament.
But I’m really proud of the work I’ve done to support schools in my constituency, especially Hetton School. The school was in a terrible state yet its planned rebuilding was cancelled by the incoming Conservative government in 2010 when they scrapped Building Schools for the Future. After a lot of persistent lobbying of ministers – privately and on the floor of the House of Commons – together with a lot of hard work alongside a lot of other people in the community and in the school, was eventually rebuilt to a proper standard.
5. If you could choose your perfect staffroom, who would be in it?
It would be my fantastic colleagues in Labour’s shadow education team – Helen Hayes, Stephen Morgan, Toby Perkins and Matt Western.
6. What do you think are the best and worst aspects of our schools system?
When I think back to my own time at school, and how things have changed since then, many of the best aspects of our school system are things that Labour changed in power – more support for teachers with teaching assistants and with so many schools rebuilt and buildings re-equipped. Also seeing so many school leaders with a strong sense of purpose about high standards, about how their school fits into the community and about working together to improve all our schools.
The worst? What teachers tell me time and again is how schools suffer from the lack of attention the government has been paying to education right through this pandemic – the last minute announcements and the failure to tackle the big picture issues while ministers pick fights for headlines. Our children and all school staff deserve so much better. They deserve respect.
7. Your own teachers aside, who in education has influenced you the most?
Education is about a family environment as well, and that was really important to me. My grandparents were a big part of my childhood and my grandad was always talking about the importance of reading and education. His family came over from Ireland, he served in the RAF, then trained as a nurse after the war, and became a nursing tutor.
8. If you became education secretary tomorrow, what would you change?
A lot! But the first thing would be to put in place a proper package for our children’s recovery from the disruption of the pandemic. We’re in the third school year now of absences and uncertainty and it’s appalling that the government still doesn’t have an adequate plan to support our children and young people who have lost so many days of school to make sure their learning and their development catches up.
9. What will our schools be like in 30 years?
I’m wary of futuristic visions, but in a word, better! Better for children, better for parents, better for staff, better for the communities they serve. There is always room for improvement. I want families to have a better idea of how their kids are doing at school, teachers to feel better supported in their careers and in the classroom, schools to be better helped to improve standards for every child. I want education to be at the centre of a Labour government’s ambition for Britain.
10. What one person do you think has made the most difference to our schools over the past year?
Something the last two years will have brought home to so many of us is that it’s so rarely about one person. In education and across the country the response to the pandemic underlined the need to work together: how much our schools, nurseries, colleges and universities depend on catering staff, support staff, teachers and leaders, and how so many people have been prepared to go above and beyond to help others and secure our services.