Bridget Phillipson Labour Member of Parliament for Houghton and Sunderland South
Speech – Schools North East
Newcastle, 26 January 2023
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Thank you, and to you all for welcoming me here today.
It’s a rare for a Sunderland MP to be pleased to appear at St James’ Park, but I’m really pleased to be here with you all today and to have the opportunity to speak to you about Labour’s vision for education.
And that vision is simple.
I want to see excellence: excellence for every child, in every school, in every corner of our country.
And I want to work with you all to deliver it.
Our children are at the heart of Labour’s ambition for Britain.
Children alive today can expect to live into the next century.
Where the pace of change is increasing and technological advancements growing.
We must equip them for that world.
It is our responsibility not just to think about schools today, but how our schools equip children for the world of tomorrow.
What it means to grow up in this country, what the country they inherit will become.
And, you don’t need me to tell you, that our children don’t lack vision.
Time and again, meeting children, talking to children, listening to children, I am struck by their ambition, and their optimism.
Ambition not just for themselves and their families, but for our country and our world.
I am determined that in government, Labour will match that ambition.
The education we provide for our children today will shape all our futures.
By delivering an excellent education for every child we will build a better future for us all.
Some of you will have heard me talk about my own experience of education here in the North East.
I went to brilliant local state schools, with teachers who saw the value and worth in each and every one of us.
They set high standards and saw no reason why we should not meet them.
Their ambitions enable me to achieve.
And it’s their ambition that I want to spread throughout our schools’ system.
Labour will set high standards for every child.
And we will work with you all to deliver them: to enable every child to achieve and thrive.
I know that will not be easy.
The impact of the Covid pandemic, and the last thirteen years of Conservative mismanagement have taken their toll on our school system and our school staff.
A workforce exhausted and underappreciated.
School buildings crumbling.
A recovery programme in chaos.
Attainment gaps widening.
The scandal of child poverty growing.
It will once again be the task of the next Labour government to change this picture.
That challenge will only be met by working together.
It will need you, the teachers, leaders, school staff, who make such a difference to children’s lives.
It will need parents, carers, wider public services and the whole community to work together if we are to transform children’s lives.
Schools are the only public services that will touch all of our lives.
Your schools are one of the most powerful means we have to shape the life chances of every child and the life of every community.
You all know that opportunity does not begin and end with the sound of the school bell – schools evolve to offer wraparound care, holiday activities, extracurricular opportunities, support for parents and families.
We have started to set out that ambition with Labour’s plan for breakfast clubs in every primary school in England.
Through these clubs Labour will ensure: that every child has a healthy meal that sets them up for the day, that we improve attainment and close growing gaps in learning, boost attendance and create time for socialising at the start of the day, that we support children’s emotional wellbeing, and critically, that we deliver the childcare that makes life easier for millions of working parents, particularly Mams, to work the jobs and hours that they choose.
And we will fund this by abolishing non-domicile tax status so that people who live here, and build a life here, pay their taxes here too.
Labour’s vision would support millions of children and families every day.
And schools are at the heart of it.
Schools are at the heart of our communities and at the heart of Labour’s ambition for the future.
School Trusts have always argued that schools are civic institutions, and that your leaders are civic leaders.
That mission can bring our communities and schools together, as we build a new future for schools and children across the country.
But that can only be achieved if government trusts you.
I’m sure some of you will have welcomed the government’s push towards all schools moving into trusts in their White Paper last year.
Yet the sad reality of the Schools Bill showed just how little trust the Conservatives have in our schools and in our school staff.
The Secretary of State does not need the power to dictate the length of your school day, the exams children are entered for, what you teach and how you teach it, which staff schools employ and on what terms.
It showed how little faith the government has in the education system they have shaped for thirteen years.
It showed that this government does not trust schools, and it does not trust School Trusts.
If we are to transform children’s life chances we must work together and that means trusting you to do you job.
So let me be clear: I trust you and I trust your schools to put children and families at the heart of everything you do.
I trust you to be the experts in how children learn and the approach that’s right in your classroom.
I trust you to know what sport, art, music and drama are right for the children you teach.
And I trust you to know when you need help too.
Labour will end the needless micro-management from Westminster.
But that does not mean we will not have high standards.
Getting the best out of people means respecting their professionalism, and supporting improvement, and challenging their performance.
Too often our current system leaves leaders and teachers feeling exposed and unsupported.
Accountability and inspection has become too high stakes, where the risks of a ‘bad’ inspection outweigh the rewards of a good one.
That does not serve the interests of children, parents or schools.
It is actively damaging the recruitment and retention of staff.
The way in which schools are funded, managed, and structured, has changed entirely in the thirty years since Ofsted was established.
But our inspections system still sees schools as they were then.
Multi-academy trusts have become central to how many schools are run and how they perform, but inspection of them is missing.
At the same time, and in too many cases, local authorities have responsibilities that matter, but without the powers to deliver.
All of that has to change.
And to drive that change we must be clear what inspection is for: to ensure every child gets the start they deserve, the chance to achieve and to thrive.
To enable every teacher to learn and develop, ensuring they are supported to deliver the opportunities every child needs.
To provide parents with independent and trusted information about the performance of our child’s school.
To ensure that responsibility sits at the right level within the system, with multi-academy trusts properly accountable for the provision within the schools they run.
The triggers for intervention and the way the whole system operates need to be more in line with those purposes.
So we will be looking at how to bring MATs into the inspection system.
To ensure that every part of the school system which can be a locus for improvement and change is capture and utilised.
This speaks to the state of the school system today.
To the mix and match landscape of maintained and academy schools that a future Labour government would inherit.
This distinction, while often shaping educational debate over recent years, mostly means nothing to parents.
They want a good local school where their children are happy and get the first-class education they all deserve.
That will be my focus from government, and I know all types of school can deliver that.
But I also know that our school system is fragmented, opaque, and over-complex.
Instead of one system, we are running several.
I’m not interested in wholesale structural reform.
But I do want to smooth the differences.
Labour believes, as I know many of you do, that place is crucial.
That while collaboration across the country is to be encouraged, schools should also be working together for the benefit of the local communities they serve.
Yet too often, schools are incentivised to compete against one another.
To operate admissions and exclusions policies that serve the interests of some children at the expense of others.
That’s not to criticise any school, or school trust, but to say that we must look again if we are to truly put children and their outcomes at the heart of this system.
So with Labour, we want all schools to cooperate with their local authority on admissions and place planning.
We want to see a consistent role for governors and parent voice in the direction of local schools.
We will not be imposing top down structures, but we will demand collaboration and cooperation in the best interests of our children.
I will celebrate the achievements of academies, of you and your schools across our region.
And I will celebrate the achievements of maintained schools where they are delivering for our children.
Like parents across our country, I am focused on outcomes for our children.
On standards not structures.
And we know that you are critical to delivering those standards.
The most important factor in school for boosting children’s learning, is the quality of teaching.
Teachers, school leaders and support staff are doing an incredible job every single day to support our children.
But there are simply not enough of you.
Under this government teacher vacancies have more than doubled.
Temporarily filled posts stand at over 2,000 a year.
Teacher recruitment targets have been missed once again.
More teachers are leaving our classrooms than entering.
For a decade staff have been overworked, overstretched, and undervalued.
We have a teacher recruitment and retention crisis created by this government.
So, Labour has said we would use money raised from ending private schools’ tax breaks to support our teachers.
We would invest in recruiting thousands of new teaching staff.
Filling these vacancies and plugging skills gaps.
Making sure teachers are not burnt out because they’re covering their own job and someone else’s.
And once in our schools, we’ll support every teacher with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive.
With an entitlement to ongoing training.
I know you’re too often trying to squeeze learning and professional development into evenings, weekends or sessions on inset days.
So, we will take this pressure off and ensure teachers are encouraged and supported to take on learning opportunities.
Labour would give teaching staff the skills that you’ve told us are needed to support children special educational needs and disabilities, who have learnt English as a second language, or to develop professional expertise in the curriculum or knowledge sequencing.
This training would ensure every child has a teacher who is confident in the expert knowledge they have to help that child thrive.
We want to support you and support your staff.
But we will also have high expectations.
These steps would help the next Labour government to ensure every child is taught by a qualified teacher.
Because every child, and every parent should have that guarantee.
And we want to know that every child is getting a strong grounding in the basics and core curriculum.
So, we will require all schools to follow the national curriculum, as I know many academies opt to do.
That doesn’t mean I want to tell you what books to teach nor how to teach them.
It will not mean limiting your ability to reflect your community or geography within your curriculum.
But it will mean that every parent and family knows that their child is entitled to the same core framework underpinning their learning.
A framework that supports skills as well as knowledge.
That nurtures creativity alongside academic success.
Which equips young people to thrive in their studies, at work and throughout their life.
So, Labour will review the curriculum, we will protect teacher autonomy, but ensure that every child has the strong foundations that will set them up for life.
A curriculum that prepares young people for their futures, must also inspire and expand horizons.
Today two thirds of young people do not have access to professional careers advice.
Pre-pandemic, almost half of young people reported that they felt unprepared for their futures,while half of employers reported that young people were leaving education unprepared for the world of work.
The government is failing to support young people, failing to set them up for the future and that fails us all.
Since the Conservatives’ scrapped Connexions they have left a gaping hole that Labour will fill.
We will invest in over a thousand new careers advisors and embed them in schools and colleges across the country.
Talking to businesses they say that they struggle to engage with schools around careers and the jobs of the future.
They are concerned that teachers do not know what opportunities exist now and in the future.
They worry young people are not getting access to the opportunities they need.
As with so much, teachers are doing their best.
But it’s not your job to fill this hole.
I want our teachers free to focus on ensuring the highest standards in our schools, on delivering opportunities and making learning fun.
For a decade this government has piled more and more responsibilities onto our teachers.
It is time to let teachers teach.
So, through expanding a network of professional careers advisors across our schools and colleges, Labour would free up teacher and lecturer capacity.
And we would give young people the expert support they need to make informed choices about their futures.
To learn about apprenticeships, T-levels and vocational opportunities, alongside the higher education options that are available to them.
And we would go further, introducing a minimum of two weeks’ worth of work experience for every young person.
Opening-up new opportunities, enabling young people to explore their interests, building confidence and developing the skills that employers tell us are desperately needed.
While government neglect is leaving young people unprepared for their futures and for the world they will inherit, Labour is facing that future.
We want to meet the collective challenges we all face: automation, digitalisation, climate change.
That starts at school and must continue with learning throughout life.
Labour’s plans will embed mandatory digital skills across the curriculum, learning from our colleagues in Wales to ensure no child leaves school without the basic digital skills needed for the modern world.
Our plans will ensure that young people in school and college today, leave our education system ready for work and ready for life.
A lot of what I have to say today focuses on teacher’s time and capacity.
The many and varied hats that teachers have been asked to wear on top of the central job of teaching our children.
As a local MP, I have seen how much you do to improve children’s lives.
But over the last few years our school staff have truly gone above and beyond.
From the Covid pandemic, to the cost of living crisis, our schools are supporting and holding communities together.
Schools are doing an incredible job, but cannot change all that happens beyond the school gates.
Rising child poverty is holding children back, and the growing mental health crisis is too.
Too many children are struggling with their mental health.
And they are struggling without support.
Unable to see a GP.
Stuck on CAMHs waiting lists for years.
Left in limbo without help.
No child should be left without the support they need to be happy and healthy.
No parent should be left feeling unsupported and alone when helping their child face mental health problems.
No teacher should be left stuck unable to refer children for the professional support that’s needed.
We know that supporting young people with their mental health is putting another burden on schools and overstretched school staff.
And the government is not doing enough.
Mental health support teams are reaching a fraction of the children who could benefit.
Senior leaders are being required to take on yet another responsibility for children’s mental health, because CAMHs services are unable to tackle the backlogs.
We all know that wellbeing is essential to enabling children’s learning.
But again, the government is letting young people down.
So Labour would give children access to professional mental health counsellors in every school, using the money raised from ending private school’s tax breaks.
We would ensure that children are not stuck waiting for referrals, unable to get support.
Teachers are not trying to carry the burden of young people’s mental health on top of their wider workloads.
We would ensure every child knows that help is at hand.
And for young people, for whom accessing that support in school isn’t the right choice, we will deliver a new model of open access youth mental health hubs.
Building on work already underway in Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere.
Providing an open door for all our young people.
Getting support to children early, preventing problems from escalating.
Improving young people’s mental health not just responding when they’re in crisis.
Enabling them to learn, and enabling them to thrive.
That’s Labour’s plan.
Because education is about opportunity.
The opportunity given to each of us, to all of us, all our lifelong.
My life has been a lesson in the power of education.
The opportunities that local schools gave me and the belief that my teachers had in me.
I will bring that sense of ambition and those expectations with me to government, to champion every child’s learning and wellbeing, delivering enriching childhoods, which support every young person to succeed.
I want every child to benefit from a brilliant education which instils in them a love of learning carried throughout their life.
Because when I meet parents and pupils, teachers, and lecturers headteachers, principals or employers there is a clear consensus about what needs to happen next.
They all want us to be more ambitious.
They want us to look to the future, to the opportunities that we can give every child and to deliver the outstanding education they all deserve.
I want to work with you to match that ambition.
To make the change we need the reality we see.