Bridget Phillipson Labour Member of Parliament for Houghton and Sunderland South
Speech – Area-based Education Partnerships Association
Bloomsbury, London, 10 February 2023
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Thank you so much for inviting me today, and I want to pay special thanks to Estelle Morris, who has been a source of support and wisdom to me in this role.
Today is a welcome opportunity for me to talk a little about the changes Labour would like to see in our school system.
To ensure that excellence is for everyone, in every school, in every corner of our country.
Not just for some children.
Not just for some schools.
Not just for some academy chains, or some areas of our country.
But for all our children.
And to do that is going to mean change for the settlement we inherit.
Our focus will be, above all, on standards, rather than structures.
We will, as we have made clear, end the tax exemptions that private schools enjoy.
We will invest that money in higher standards for our children.
Through employing more teachers.
Through better training for teachers.
Through supporting new heads to develop, succeed in their role.
Through supporting our young people’s mental health, because to achieve, our children need also to thrive.
Through delivering a curriculum rich both in knowledge and skills, so our children leave education not merely ready for work, but ready for life.
And at the heart of that mission, are our schools.
Now you will all know, as well as anyone, that there has never been a golden age of simplicity in England’s schools.
The 1944 Act is often seen, and with good cause, seen as rationalising the state-funded system that came before.
But it did so in part, as well you all know, by entrenching the differences between types of schools: between grammars, secondary moderns, and the promised but hardly existing technical schools.
The story of schools in England, as structures and institutions, is one of a long series of efforts at sweeping structural change, almost none of which have been, on their own terms, altogether successful.
And thirteen years ago, a new government came to power, with, like so many before it, a new plan.
And while there is much for which I will criticize him, it is to Michael Gove’s credit that he had ambition for our children, for school improvement, and that he delivered on his ambitions at pace.
He saw clearly, too, that the tax breaks that private schools continue to enjoy are, indefensible, and asked why, to use his words, we should continue to provide such egregious state support to the already wealthy so that they might buy advantage for their own children.
That is why it is one of the many tragedies of the last thirteen years, that not one of his successors since – his nine successors – has matched Gove for interest, ambition, and drive.
But I will stop with the praise there, for the settlement that Gove’s reforms left behind is a fractured one, and the last twelve months have reminded us of the consequences that has for too many students, schools, and staff .
A Schools White Paper, thin to a degree, back last March.
And then out of nowhere, a Schools Bill in the Lords last summer.
Out of ideas, and without even the vision Gove had, the government proposed to hand new and sweeping powers over academies, not to local authorities, not to Ofsted, which needs to turn a corner to be a more effective part of our system, not to Regional Schools Commissioners, or to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, not even to heads themselves.
To the Secretary of State himself, to Nadhim Zahawi.
The Schools Bill would have given him sweeping powers, to set and enforce standards across some twenty separate areas of academy school activity.
Not just over such areas as the curriculum and complaints procedures, whistleblowing and careers guidance, where a degree of uniformity and guidance would be widely welcomed.
But over such diverse, and ill-defined, fields as the spiritual and moral development of pupils; the quality of leadership, the procedures for assigning responsibilities to staff, even the exact length of the school day.
That is not a charter for change or a recipe for reform.
It is a bureaucratic dystopia.
It tells its own story, too.
A government rudderless after too long in power, out of ideas, out of allies, above all, out of confidence, substituting central control for either partnership or guidance.
As far as we know, and as Schools Week has splashed this morning, the Schools Bill will not be returning.
The government’s commitment to have all schools in multi academy trusts by 2030 is, we are told, all but dead.
The White Paper pledge to let councils run their own multi-academy trusts has apparently been ditched.
According to the tabulation in Schools Week, less than half of the ambitions in the White Paper pledges have either been implemented or are on track to be.
Legislative time for change is precious, because time in our children’s lives is precious.
A missed Bill now means a delay for another year or more, a delay for another cohort of our children.
In my team we measure time in Education Secretaries – right now, a year is about five of them.
And because it could so easily have been different.
It is easy, perhaps especially for Bills like the Schools Bill, which began its life in the Lords, for any opposition to sit back and criticize.
Labour did not.
Right from the start, Labour engaged.
Because our children deserve no less.
They deserve an opposition, and indeed a government, that believes, as you all do, in putting them first.
In working in partnership, with institutions, with leaders, with teachers and with support staff, and crucially, across areas.
Because schools do not exist in isolation, either from one another, or from their community.
Every school is part of a family, not just maintained schools, church schools and faith schools, or academies within a multi-academy trust.
But a family linked to a place, as families are, because just as our children and young people belong to communities, so too must our schools.
And that is the spirit in which Labour sought, last summer, to amend the Schools Bill.
My focus will be relentless in government: on standards, not structures.
I have said before, and I will say again, that the next Labour government will not be in the business of disrupting good schools; I am more interested in what goes on in the classroom – and the corridors and playgrounds, for that matter, than in the sign above the door.
But by dropping the Schools Bill, the government has missed the chance for change.
We welcomed, for example, the principle that schools funding should be open, transparent, and set out clearly in law.
We welcomed the powers to direct and order improvements of academy proprietors, for Labour has long been clear, that every locus of power in the schools system must be an engine of improvement, and subject to proper inspection.
We welcomed the expansion of regulation of independent educational institutions.
Perhaps above all, we welcomed the acceptance by government that it has responsibility too, for children schooled at home or, too often, not in school at all.
But the opportunity was there for a set of reforms to end the worst abuses of the system we have, and the government passed that opportunity up.
Labour’s amendments had a clear thread: that place has a role, that partnership is central to improvement, and that schools are vital, but not the only, parts in the lives of our children.
We moved amendments to allow a strong set of national standards on inclusion, especially for children with S-E-N-D.
To restore common national bargaining frameworks for the pay, terms and conditions for school staff, because difference should be about driving standards up, not down; and because all the unions, for all the staff in our schools, need to be at the table.
We looked to ensure all schools follow the national curriculum, for one of the deep ironies of the culture wars the Conservatives stoke on the curriculum, is that they had set a target of making the National Curriculum, their great achievement of my own childhood, binding on precisely no schools at all.
To ensure that every teacher, in every school, is a qualified teacher.
Because just as I expect the woman who drove the train on which I came here today to be qualified, I expect the teachers who guide our children’s futures to be qualified.
To give Ofsted the power to inspect multi-academy trusts, not just schools.
To rationalize the division of functions between the Education and Skills Funding Agency, and the regional Schools Commissioners.
And our vision of partnership extended too, to local authorities.
Because local authorities are the voice for the communities, the places, and in every sense the families, within which our schools sit.
The needless micromanagement from Whitehall of the original Schools Bill was matched only by the almost allergic reaction the government has to councils.
Place-planning and admissions, are roles which thirteen years of botched reforms have either handed to the market, or scattered to the winds.
It was clear from the start that that was not always going to work.
And too often it hasn’t worked, too often it doesn’t work, and it needs to work, not just in some areas but all areas, because all our children deserve better.
Excellence is for everyone: a decentralized system cannot be an excuse for local failure.
That’s why Labour pushed for changes that would have made local authorities the admissions authorities, for every state funded school.
And would have given local authorities once again the simple power to coordinate place planning for which they are uniquely well placed.
None of these changes would have disrupted a single well-run academy.
But they would have ended the practices which corrode the trust and partnership so vital in education, and which you all work do hard to deliver and to embody.
Practices which put schools as institutions – their success, their reputation – ahead of children as people.
Because above all else, that was the central failing of the Schools Bill.
Schools should work in partnership – with each other, with the local authority, with every other public service, not simply because the law requires it, but because the best interests of our children – all our children require it.
That is why I have set out clearly how Labour will ensure that school improvement and school accountability work better together.
With peer to peer learning in particular, recognized for its value, encouraged, and developed between schools and leaders.
With Ofsted turning a corner to become the better and stronger inspectorate we need.
A critical friend, to every good leader and every good teacher.
The sort of friend who tells you the truth from which others might flinch.
Partnership means working together to address weakness.
It means honest professional dialogue.
It means schools within an area recognizing that children matter more than individual institutions.
Too often I hear stories of schools who feel the inspection system and the admissions system work together to make local partnership harder.
How they interact to allow, encourage even, sharp practice.
Labour will set that right.
Because it is vital that we think of our children and young people, not just as units passing through institutions, but more broadly: in terms of the families they come from and the future they will build.
To me, that is intensely personal.
I grew up in a single parent family.
My mam brought me up a time when the Conservative government saw its role, for families like mine, as one of judgement.
Ministers like Peter Lilley went out of their way to attack us.
To criticise us, not to support us.
To demean us, not to empower us.
To doubt us, not to believe in us.
I was lucky, because I had a family, and a school, that believed differently: that believed in the worth and value of every one of us.
Too many children my age, too many children even in my class, didn’t have both of those.
But that experience didn’t make me think families are unimportant.
Quite the opposite.
It taught me that what matters about families is not the shape they are, or the size they have, but the love they give.
And it taught me too, that the best schools are rooted in a sense of place, rooted in their community, and have a sense of the value and worth of each and every child, of the roles we all have, of the futures we all deserve.
My teenage years unfolded as Labour took power.
I saw then the difference it made, when government saw schools as part of a system, embedded in places, communities, contexts, partnerships, not alone.
The difference it made, when a generation, like me, were supported after sixteen with Education Maintenance Allowance.
I see it now still, in the better lives of young people who grew up with that advantage, with the support it unlocked.
Because children are not simply a phase in the lives of their parents, nor the units through which our schools are measured, nor simply the workers who fill the jobs to come and the economy for which we plan, but the citizens and the society of the future, the artists, the scientists, the activists and campaigners, the inventors, critics, thinkers and poets, the people who throng to parks, matches, zoos and gardens, every weekend, the partners and parents, carers and volunteers, and of course, the voters.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s society.
It’s why my focus as Shadow Secretary of State, has been on building a coalition for change in childcare, that goes beyond early years provision, that extends beyond the parents of our smallest children.
For just as parents know that childcare costs don’t end when children begin at primary school, so schools know that too many children start school less ready than others, that attainment gaps open up early, need tackling early, and crucially, that the role of schools is tackling inequality, in closing that gap, is not a role they perform alone.
That is why last autumn, at Labour’s conference, I announced that we will introduce breakfast clubs for every primary school child in every primary school in England.
A funded service, for every child, from every family, in every primary school.
Breakfast clubs drive up standards and achievement.
They improve behaviour, and attendance.
Because as you will know, it’s about the club, as well as the breakfast.
They enable parents to work.
They give mams and dads choices.
They fit into our broader vision of schools, as central to partnerships with children and their futures, at the heart.
The Britain we inherit will be a challenge far beyond 1997.
Public finances wrecked.
Credit ratings slashed.
Across our public services, waiting lists at record levels, backlogs beyond imagining, buildings literally crumbling.
Schools are no exception.
Teachers, support staff, and leaders overstretched.
Buildings in such a bad state of repair the government won’t publish their own surveys.
But I want to leave you today, clear on one thing.
Just as in 1997, we will fix this.
We may not do it in a day, or a year, or a term, but fix it we will.
Once again it will fall to Labour to deliver the change our children need.
We have the ambition, to match the challenge.
The government Keir leads will define itself, not against the mess we inherit, but through the future we bequeath.
Because Labour has changed.
No longer a party of protest, but a party of public service.
Not just ready to win, but ready to govern.
Ready not just to take power, but to use it.
With a mission for change which we will take from transforming our party to transforming our nation.
Putting children, education, and families at the heart of the challenge.
Putting these issues centre stage in our debates.
Defining the difference between the parties, not on who promises what for today, but who can deliver for our children tomorrow.