Bridget Phillipson MP
Bridget Phillipson MP

Speech – Annual Conference of the Association of School & College Leaders

Birmingham, 11 March 2023


Thank you Evelyn, and to Geoff, Julie and all your team.

Last year, I spoke to you as the immediate challenge of the pandemic was only then lifting from our schools.

It seems an age ago.

In the unit of time which we use in my office, it was four education secretaries ago.

And of course back in those distant days, serving education secretaries weren’t actually frightened of headteachers.

I gave our thanks then for the phenomenal job you all did in guiding and supporting your schools and communities through the pandemic.

And I thank you now, for the ongoing job you are doing every day, to support our children and young people.

Whatever Conservative ministers say, in years when they show up, I want you all to know, that the Labour Party respects, trusts and values the work you do. Thank you.

Today the world ahead seems both more challenging and more hopeful.

Challenging, because nothing in the year that has followed, has given any confidence that the government is concentrating on the problems that face our country.

Eleven months ago, the government introduced a Schools White Paper.

A thinner government document I have rarely seen.

Then ten months ago, we got a Schools Bill.

I said then, and I will say again now, there was much in that Bill that Labour supports.

It is right that we have a register and visibility of home-schooling.

That a national funding formula for schools be transparent and set out in law.

That independent educational institutions come under proper oversight.

Those laws are needed.

And if the government does not find time to legislate on these issues, the next Labour government will.

But I don’t need to tell you, that the Bill also represented an unlikely combination – both a swerve the wrong way, and a huge missed opportunity.

A swerve the wrong way because you don’t have to be believe schools should be wholly independent, to think that not every decision must be taken in Westminster the length of the school day, how schools work with one another, the exams children are entered for.

These are decisions I trust you, as school leaders, to take.

But above all, it was a missed opportunity.

Because the challenges that face our school system are not, in large part, about structures.

Or, at least, not the structures the government are interested in.

They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the real ones.

The growing backlog of repairs to the school estate.

The risk of a building collapsing is assessed, by the Department itself, as “critical – very likely”.

It is totally unacceptable that the Department will not trust parents with the knowledge of which buildings are at greatest risk.

Not just unacceptable.


But beyond the buildings, outside our schools, soaring child poverty is making all your jobs harder.

Children exist in families as well as schools.

Families that are being failed, month in and month out.

And the ills of our society, the scar of child poverty, the inequality of opportunity, the gaps between rich and poor, you know, and I know, schools are key partners in tackling these.

Labour’s ambition for our schools, for every child to succeed, for excellence for everyone, that ambition never sleeps.

But schools cannot and will not fix our society alone.

Inside our schools, I know you are facing tough challenges.

I know you are working hard to support your teachers and school staff during the cost of living crisis, to respect the right to strike, but also to keep your schools running for children and for families.

Like you, I have asked every one of the last four Education Secretaries to focus on resolving industrial action, to work with unions to get a solution, for you, for you staff, for the children you teach.

And I know that among the biggest challenge you face as leaders, is recruiting, training and retaining top quality school staff.

School leaders and teachers, teaching assistants and support staff, do an amazing job.

The trouble is, we don’t have enough leaders and we don’t have enough people wanting to step up to leadership roles.

We don’t have enough teachers.

In some subjects, we have nowhere near enough of them.

We don’t have enough teaching assistants, and schools simply cannot recruit the people they need.

The pressures on staff have driven an exodus from all levels of the profession which our country, never mind our schools, can ill afford.

We must be clear about the consequences of government failure to deliver for our children.

It means a poorer society.

Poorer socially, poorer culturally.

But also, poorer economically.

Less able to provide for our futures, for our old age.

Less able to build the better tomorrow we want for all our children.

Economic projections have said that unless trends move, Britain’s economic decline will see us fall behind Poland by 2030, behind Romania and Hungary soon after.

Now Labour wishes the people of Poland, of all these countries, every success.

But our government should be looking to match their growth rate, match their success, not just admire it, as it passes us by.

And the solution is simple.

In fact, Jan Zamoyski, Poland’s most famous statesman, laid it out over four hundred years ago, a wisdom that endures, that countries’ relative fates are determined by the way they bring up their young people.

“Such will be the commonwealths as the upbringing of their youths.”

It was right then.

It is right now.

It is the sixteenth century version of a truth Labour leaders know.

It’s the truth Tony Blair spoke when he said the priorities of his government would be threefold: education, education, education.

And it‘s the truth at the heart of Labour’s Mission to break down the barriers to opportunity, which Keir Starmer spoke so powerfully about last month, and which will see the next Labour government drive forward reform of education and of childcare.

While our current government confirmed, in the Prime Minister’s New Year Message, that among their five priorities, improving our children’s education and outcomes has not been one of them, is not one of them today, will not be one of them tomorrow.

The next Labour government will bring a wind of change to our education system.

Because I am determined that under Labour, the focus will again return, to how we deliver a better future for every child, through high and rising standards in every school.

Under Labour, excellence will be for everyone.

High standards for children, means high standards for teachers.

And that is what I am determined to deliver.

Not by hiding from teachers.

But by working with school leaders, with teachers, with all our school staff.

By investing in teachers.

Because Labour knows well, that investing in our children, means investing in you.

We face an unprecedented workforce challenge.

Not enough teachers or leaders, means that high standards are for some of our children, not all of them.

That is not good enough.

Excellence is for everyone.

That is why the next Labour government will end the tax exemptions private schools enjoy, and will invest in more teachers, better training, and new support for those stepping-up to leadership roles.

Not tax breaks for some of our schools, but high standards for all of our children.

Because, excellence is for everyone.


When governments are not clear and firm, about the importance of driving up standards, it is not politicians who are let down.

It is children.

And it is the children who need those high standards in our schools most.

It is children without someone to read with them, children who lack a quiet place to do their homework, children with sometimes unstable homes, or unstable housing.

This truth was laid bare during the pandemic, and it remains true today.

In every corner of our country, it is the children who need good schools and good teachers most, who are let down when the government supports neither.

So I make absolutely no apology for saying that Labour is, and will be, the party of high and rising standards.


Today’s children are tomorrow’s society.

It goes to the heart of my politics, that tomorrow can and must be better than today.

It’s why a key part of my approach, as Shadow Secretary of State, has been on building a coalition for change in childcare.

A coalition 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 primary school, so schools know, that too many children start school behind their peers, that attainment gaps open up early, need tackling early, and crucially, that the role of schools in 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 in every primary school in England.

A funded service, available to 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.


Improving standards doesn’t mean disrupting good schools.

But is does mean believing, for our schools just as for our country, our best days are ahead of us, not behind us.

And as well as fresh services, fresh investment, and a fresh approach, we need a system of accountability, a system of inspection, that helps drive change.

The reason I want to reform Ofsted isn’t because I think it’s too challenging.


It’s because, after years of decline under the Conservatives, the trouble with Ofsted is the reverse.

It isn’t good enough.

That is true, not just in our schools, but across the full range of Ofsted’s responsibilities.

Last year, on this stage, I said that Ofsted, having turned thirty, needed to turn a corner.

I set a direction for the change Labour wants to see.

I said that under Labour, Ofsted would inspect multi-academy trusts would be the critical friend every good leader and good teacher needs, would tell the hard truths school leaders need to hear, but move beyond an adversarial approach.

Would balance the responsibilities of local authorities, with powers that make them possible.

Would locate Ofsted inspection in a wider approach, supporting, improving, and celebrating our schools.

Today I want to set out more, and I want to thank the team at ASCL and all those who have fed into this thinking.

For school inspection, the principles should be clear.

Excellence for all our children, to ensure they get the start they deserve, the chance to achieve and to thrive.

Quality assurance, for government and the public.

School improvement, because no schools should ever stop improving.

A parent guarantee, because all of us as parents deserve to be confident about the education our children receive, and engaged in supporting their learning.

And Ofsted will not succeed in any of that, if it loses sight of staff wellbeing and retention.

Those principles mean change.

They mean a stronger Ofsted, not a weaker one.

An inspectorate where the team who lead inspections have the right experience for the job.

Primary schools should be inspected by experts with experience in primary education.

Secondary schools, by experts with experience in secondary schools.

Because research is telling us that there are problems with the reliability and consistency of Ofsted judgements.

Research is telling us that Ofsted’s own use of evidence is flawed.

So I welcome the calls for Ofsted to bring forwards proposed research, to thoroughly investigate the current system and inform change.

Because it is clear: change must happen.

And today I want to set out a couple of specific changes, informed by these principles.

First, I do not believe it is the right, that we give children, parents and staff a one or two word judgement on their school.

It is simplistic, it hides the variation in the quality of our schools, and the pace of their improvement.

So, Labour will move away from the system of headline grades to a new ‘report card’, that tells parents, simply and clearly, how well their school is performing.

Parents and schools deserve better than a system that is high stakes for staff, but low information for parents.

Trigger points for intervention will always feature, because Labour will never standby as children are failed.

But neither will we allow a failed system, to hold back our schools.

We will consult with you, with parents, and others, to get this right.

Because parents should know whether their school is focused on doing better for the children it serves: what the school is best at, where there is most room for improvement and where that improvement is happening.

Because I want parents to be part of that wind of change through our classrooms: partners in the push for better.

And because I want every school leader, every teacher, not just to be achieving for our children, but to be supported in the drive for ongoing improvement.

As professionals.

As public servants.

As people engaged in the most important work of all.

I know many of you are tired and will be wary of a demand for more.

I will make no apology for being demanding for our children, but I will also promise to always work with you to make this achievable.


Now Ofsted is an inspectorate, not an improvement agency.

When I say I want to ensure that school improvement and school accountability to work better together – I do not confuse the two purposes.

But a stronger understanding of what’s right, and what’s wrong, is a precondition to the improvements we want to see.

Every part of our school system that can be an engine for change should be checked to ensure it is an engine for change.

The Tories have built a school system where inspection is at once dreaded and underpowered.

Finding faults in schools which sometimes lie in trusts.

And without the authority to find the faults in the places they need fixing.

Part of that isn’t just about who inspects schools, or that no-one inspects multi-academy trusts.

It’s that we have two forms of inspections.

Too alike in some ways.  Too different in others.

Full inspections which come round rarely.

Ungraded inspections, the inspectors calling in for less than a day.

It isn’t working.

Problems fester: unnoticed, unchecked, uninspected.

I’ve had school leaders say to me, given the importance of Ofsted, I’d rather inspectors stayed for longer, had the time to look at our whole school life, to see more lessons, talk to more teachers, to more parents and children.

In just two days inspectors are being asked to look at everything: at safeguarding and at sports lessons, at teacher development and trigonometry, at attendance and at attainment.

And this means, not only are mistakes made, but things are missed.

And some of the things that are missed, are the most important of all, because they are about the safety and wellbeing of our children.

So Labour will create a new annual review of safeguarding, of health and safety, of attendance and off-rolling.

These are ongoing issues that affect every school.

They are not issues that can be left for infrequent inspection.

Again, we will work with you, we will consult with you, to get this right.

Because Ofsted has done valuable work in recent years, giving voice to the scale of sexual harassment going on in too many of our schools, in the wake of “Everyone’s Invited”.

Too many of our children – too many girls in particular – exposed to language, images, and behaviours, that no government, no school, no parent, above all, no student, should tolerate.

Under Labour, that is going to change.

We will listen to school leaders, and we will listen to school staff, we will listen to inspectors, and we will listen to social workers, because it is a sign of strength, not of weakness, to consult on change.

But change must come.

Our children come to school to thrive socially and academically.

We owe it to them all to make sure they get the chance they deserve.

Labour is the party of excellence for everyone.

And that means we are the party of strong inspection, to serve parents better, to serve staff better, but above all, to serve children better.


But it isn’t just inspection.

There is so much in our schools’ system that can be better.

That needs to be better.

That can and must change, to give every child the start they deserve.

I want to close today, by reassuring you of a truth, which appropriately enough, I learnt at secondary school.

I left full time education at the end of Labour’s second term in office.

I watched as my school was transformed around me because successive Labour Education Secretaries drove change from the centre.

Not against leaders, teachers and support staff, but with them, through them, in partnership.

The Britain the next Labour government will inherit, will be a challenge far beyond 1997.

Public finances wrecked.

Professionals dispirited and demoralised.

Buildings crumbling.

Schools are no exception.

Teachers, support staff, and leaders overstretched.

For too many years you have been asked to do much with too little, to deliver world-class services on a fraying shoestring.

But just as in 1997, Labour will fix this: not alone, but with you, together.

We may not do it in a day, or in a year, 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.

Defining the difference between the parties, not on who promises what for today, but on our mission to deliver for our children tomorrow.

Thank you.

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