Bridget Phillipson speech in full: How Labour will fix the biggest barrier children face

Bridget Phillipson

This is a copy of Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson’s speech as written for delivery at The Centre for Social Justice today, January 9.

Thank you, Andy, and all of you for being here today.

It’s the start of term this week for so many of our children and young people, for their families, for the staff who deliver their education, for so many of us.

Now everyone who works in schools, everyone across education, loves a story. Who doesn’t?

So I’m starting today with a story. Every schoolchild knows the power of stories. To see a bigger picture, to join the dots, to see the wood rather than the trees.

But we know too, as we grow older, that sometimes a story becomes how we ignore new and difficult facts, how we bury them into a narrative set down long years ago. How we cling to beliefs, long after reality has changed.

How they become myths. And I’m here today to talk about one of the myths people tell in this country. It’s a reassuring one, a common one.

It’s one that many of you will know well. Whole political careers have been built on it. Secretaries of State. Ministers. Advisors.

Let me set it out, and you will recognize it. Because it’s very simple. It says that today in England, the government educates our children well.

And as we start a new term, nearly fourteen years into this government, I’m here to tell you that that is no longer true, that it has not been true for far too long.

And that the days when Michael Gove, for all our disagreements, brought a fresh eye, high expectations, new focus, are now the distant past. As a politician my duty is to tell truths, not peddle myths.

Today I want to set out how in 2024, as a generation earlier, change is urgent, change is pressing, and Labour is ready to deliver the change we need.


Because on Sunday, we woke to the news, thanks to the work of the Centre for Social Justice, that more than one in four parents thinks sending children to school every day doesn’t matter.

Not one in four adults. One in four parents. Not just an alarming statistic. Not just an urgent problem the government needs to tackle, though urgent it is, and tackle it they must.But an index of failure, long years of failure. Before the pandemic, during the pandemic, since the pandemic.

Not all of today’s adults are parents, but all of us start our lives as children. And a country where more than a quarter of parents aren’t persuaded that every day at school matters, a country where tens of thousands of children are routinely out of school is a country where the government is failing our future.

And I’m here today not just to promise that things can change, but to set out how Labour will deliver that change.


Now I think back often to my own time at school, and think how immensely lucky I was. Because the teachers at my comprehensive, believed every child deserved high standards.

They believed in the value and worth of each and every one of us. I had the good fortune, too, to have a family who knew education mattered, who made sure I went to school every day, who knew that aspiration and ambition weren’t just for those with money, that high standards were for everyone.

Because standards was the story of my time at school. And today, looking ahead to the next election, standards is my story. Ambition and aspiration, for each of us and all of us.

Those values are at the heart of why I joined Labour as a teenager. They are at the heart of my politics today. The belief that as the last Labour government rightly stressed, every child matters.

That excellence is for everyone. That there must be no place for low expectations, for any of our children, in any of our schools.


Today, like so many beliefs that were once common currency in our politics, That belief is distinctively Labour.

Because whilst for fourteen years governments have paid lip service to that rhetoric, we have seen, have we not, how the reality has slipped slowly away. School rebuilding, cancelled. Buildings left silently to rot.

Standards first rising, as the impact of Labour’s reforms was felt right through the system, then stagnating, now falling. A curriculum that narrows, not broadens our children’s experiences and opportunities, where the pursuit of high standards has become too often synonymous with joylessness, when nothing of the sort need be true.

Worsening shortages of staff at every stage, from initial teacher training and support staff recruitment through to retaining great teachers and fewer and fewer keen to step up to headships.

A culture where in the midst of a cost of living crisis, too often uniform requirements go beyond making children smart, and instead make families poor.

A workforce fed up with the contempt Conservative ministers show them. Industrial action ballots, in unions that have never issued them before.

A recruitment and a retention crisis that speaks to sadness far beyond this year’s pay deal. Classrooms literally crumbling around the next generation.

A sense that if the Conservatives did ever care about state education, those days are distant now. It is hard sometimes to remember, that it need not be like this. That it has not always been like this.

It would be easy – for too many, it is easy – to say it’s all down to the pandemic. To say that was where things went wrong. That the downhill slide of the last few years is short-lived, inevitable: just bad luck.

So let me be very clear. I am having absolutely none of it. There were choices then, and there are choices now.


Two truths you’ll hear me tell you often in the months and years to come. First, that the good governments do in education, can take a while to be seen.

Second, simpler still, that schools can’t solve society’s problems alone. So cast your minds back to the years after 2010.

A generation of children growing up who’d had years benefitting from Labour’s investment, with better starts and in stronger schools, in families supported at every stage, in gleaming buildings with keen new staff, with numeracy hour, literacy hour, and the phonics we brought in.

But under a new government, as time ticked on the Conservatives hacked away at the schools themselves, at the services and society that supported them to succeed, until at last the figures started to slip towards the ones we see today.

The attainment gap widening again for children starting primary and leaving secondary. Fewer 16 year olds achieving five good GCSEs by 2019 than in 2012.

The share of 19 years olds with two A-levels, or equivalent, stagnant from 2013 to 2020. I said that we tell ourselves a story in this country about education, a myth. A myth that shapes beliefs long past the time they are true.

Just last month the OECD PISA scores and rankings came out.  They let us compare school performance over time, and across countries.

The rankings, like all rankings, tell you more about how others do in the race, than about how well you did yourself.

But the scores themselves tell a bleak picture, a picture that belies the myth. Standards in maths going backwards from five years ago.

Backwards in reading. Backwards in science. It’s no defence to say that other countries are getting worse faster.

Because we should know better: education isn’t simply a race between nations, but a race to bring out the best in ourselves; a parkrun as much as a contest.

It’s no use claiming a personal best for a worse time than last week, to be content with a higher place finish simply because others have got worse faster.

You can, of course, as the foremost Conservative apologists have done, blame the pandemic. But South Korea had the pandemic.

So did Singapore. Pandemics don’t fail children, any more than droughts starve them. Governments and their failings do. The OECD themselves put it best; “It is not just about Covid”.

So by the time the pandemic came, too many children were not getting the start they need. Too many children were turning up for school not ready to sit down and learn.

Too many mornings where too many children don’t even turn up. Or will turn up, but won’t settle. Something has been going wrong in England’s schools.

Something big. The way schools interact with their pupils, with families. The trust and partnership on which the education of everyone in this room was based – slowly corroding.

The expectation that all our children belong in a classroom – quietly fading away. Too many parents saying that all they hear from schools are either requests or warnings.

The relationship between schools, families, and government has changed for the worse. And the government has spent year after year sitting by – frankly, sitting back.


All that would have been bad enough in the most normal of times. But these last few years have been normal for no-one. Four years ago this spring, the government closed our schools to most children.

It’s easy, looking back, knowing more now than we did then, to point and blame. However, in the face of a novel and dangerous infection, the government did the right thing.

But on the day schools closed, plans should have been ready to go, for the teaching children needed at home. Plans should have begun to reopen our schools, to everyone, safely and soon, putting children first.

And plans should have been started for the recovery of all our children’s education – not just their learning but their wider development too.

Every one of those plans was missing. Devices for distance learning, still rolling out seven months later. A long-term recovery plan for our children sliced to ribbons by our now Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak.

Because the private schools he knows, the schools he chooses, were always going to get by. When the government first reopened schools for most of our children, the pubs had already been open for weeks.

That was entirely the wrong way round. And I tell you today that if I am Secretary of State for Education, if and when such a national crisis comes again, schools should be last to close and first to open.

We all assumed, naively in retrospect, that the deep machinery of the British state was informing decisions. Epidemiologists. Doctors. Educationalists.

If only we had only known. The decisions being taken in 10 Downing Street were very different. What booze to trundle in. What to play on the karaoke machine, how fat the profits for their donors.

It says a lot, that the Covid Inquiry isn’t even taking evidence from Sir Gavin Williamson. I don’t blame them, frankly. Because he wasn’t important. The Education Secretary, and he wasn’t even at the table.

Ministers failed our children in their hour of greatest need. And that failure haunts us today, and will go on haunting us tomorrow.

Because the pandemic changed Britain deeply. More people in Britain died of Covid in the first year of the pandemic than died as civilians in the whole of World War II.

Nowhere is that effect more obvious, more serious, and more lacking in government engagement, than in education.

In school after school children tell me how that damaged them. They talk about themselves and their friends.

How for month after month, their education was at home, insofar as it happened at all. About the swings chained up in playgrounds, the months without fun and friendship.

They talk about how hard they found it adjusting back at school, about disruption in the classroom. Some tell me about the impact of not leaving the house for weeks at a time. About the loneliness and isolation they felt.

The fact that they missed out on key milestones in their lives, on rites of passage they had expected. Not just exams, and leavers’ dos, but birthday parties too.

How urgently, how much, they need support with their mental health. Parents nod. Teachers nod. Support staff, so often such an important part of the solution, nod too. Lockdown did lasting damage to our children.

Briefly, the government gestured at taking recovery seriously. We all saw what happened in spring 2021. Sir Kevan Collins, who I’m so pleased is here today, setting out the plan our children, our country, needed.

A brief dream of what might have been. Of the gap closing after the pandemic. Of a bright future, a Britain built back better. But instead, Rishi Sunak shrugged. He couldn’t, he insisted, when asked directly, “just say yes to everybody who comes knocking on my door”.

He had, apparently, “maxed out”. No interest in, no investment in, other people’s children. He’s opted out.

So as far as he’s concerned, our children can lose out.

And if the government doesn’t take our children’s success seriously, doesn’t care about the damage when they miss a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, then who is surprised if parents don’t either?


My own son started at primary school during the pandemic, back in autumn 2020. I remember his very first day. Hugging him and waving goodbye at the school gate.

No lingering to see he had settled: there were more parents behind me in the queue, two metres apart, waiting to hand over our children. No opportunity to go into the classroom, to chat with staff.

No chance to meet and talk to those other parents, either; no swapping numbers at school gates nor sharing stories. My son was lucky – his sister was already at the school.

I knew the teachers. I knew some of the parents. I knew he would be looked after: knew how things worked. But I think of that day often.

I cannot begin to imagine how stressful that would have been if he had been my eldest child, if the very first time I took my own child to school it had been without the chance to establish belonging for him, for me, for all of us as a family.

Because with a sense of belonging, at school as everywhere in life, comes a sense of our obligations. It wasn’t just – isn’t just – about individuals falling behind.

Again, it was worse. What happened broke the social bonds already fraying after years of neglect.

Broke the sense of belonging in school that children have for themselves, that parents have for their children, and that parents have for each other’s children.

And that has delivered us the single biggest reason why it is not the case that in England the government educates our children well, the very simplest.

The children aren’t in school. They haven’t gone to school.nHowever excellent our teachers, however well-evidenced their approaches, however thoughtful our school leaders, they can’t teach children who aren’t there.

We have a crisis of attendance in our schools and today that is the single biggest barrier to success for our children.

There’s a school in Hastings, where over 47% of the children were persistently absent in 2021/2022. At a school in Knowsley, it’s over 50%.

There’s a school on the Isle of Sheppey, where the figure is, almost unbelievably, 57%. In some of our schools more than half the children are missing a day every fortnight.

This isn’t a minor issue for the Department to address in its own good time. It’s a disaster. A couple of months ago, the Children’s Commissioner told us about the children who aren’t turning up.

The numbers are, frankly, terrifying. Across England in autumn 2022, over one in five children were persistently absent. As she rightly identified, these are crisis levels.

Only 5% of children who were severely absent in both Years 10 and 11 achieved at least 5 GCSEs, including English and maths.

As well as children missing from our schools, too many of our children who are in school simply don’t get the support they need. Children with special educational needs and disabilities.

They and their families left to struggle in a failing system that the Education Secretary herself rightly described as lose-lose-lose.

Where huge backlogs in our courts system are used to ration access to SEND support services that simply don’t suffice.

And where the frustrations those families feel, the difficulties those children experience, dissolve the ties that hold school communities together for themselves, for their friends, for the teachers and staff who try time again to get more out of less.


It is that wider sense in which the school system is failing. Barriers to learning. The fastest growing legacy of Tory rule.

Barriers because children haven’t come in. Barriers because children aren’t ready, that day or that year. Barriers because children haven’t slept, and can’t concentrate. Don’t succeed when they should, aren’t learning when they ought.

Barriers because the children simply aren’t well. Barriers that speak to the wider failure. The piling of expectations on schools alone, that schools alone can never meet.

Because child poverty’s effects don’t end as the classroom door closes. The good night’s sleep, the space to do homework, the quiet undisturbed time at home, missing from far too many of our children’s lives.

Schools shouldn’t be detached, unmoored, from the communities and places they serve. They should be at the heart of them.

Engines of opportunity for communities and the generations to come: but they cannot achieve that alone.


And that broader reality is why the government’s approach – an Attendance Action Alliance – falls so far short of the challenge.

Insofar as it tackles anything, it tackles the symptom, not the causes. As if the right response to the pandemic had been not mass vaccination, but a Coughing Control Campaign.

Nothing on getting children there on time where Labour will bring breakfast clubs into every primary.

Nothing on tackling the epidemic of mental ill-health among young people, in and out of schools, where Labour will bring counsellors into our secondary schools, and resource new community hubs outside them.

Nothing on linking up services to spot the children who need help most, where Labour will join up information, so every child can be supported.

No law to register and count the children being taught at home, which Labour would back now and would pass in government.

Nothing to support children thriving at school from the start, where Labour will bring speech and language support in the early years.

Nothing new to ensure schools are keeping children safe and included, where Labour would bring annual checks for attendance, safeguarding, and offrolling.

Every challenge our schools face – not an idea in sight. All they have is sound and fury, soundbites and gimmickry.

The causes of the absence epidemic are the deeper failures, their origins, a longer story. To tackle them means a vision, a dream and a plan. And beyond that, it means five things.

It means being serious about responsibility, at every level. It means being serious about the partnership for change we need, about parents and staff as well as leaders.

It means seeing issues in the round – as problems for children and families, for year after year in place after place, not just problems that vanish when children are out of sight.

It means believing that excellence must be for everyone. That if success, or high standards, are only for some of our children, not all, that will never, ever, be enough.

And above all it is the belief that education is not merely about individuals and their success, not simply about schools, but a partnership in each generation, a vision to shape the society of tomorrow.

These problems are deep, complex, serious: they need engagement for the long term, need planning and thinking, for the years and generations ahead, not a merry-go-round of education ministers focused on their futures not ours.

And it is clearer than ever, that the seriousness our children deserve is a seriousness the Conservatives have entirely forgot.

A weak and rudderless Prime Minister, weaving from one gimmick to the next. An Education Secretary, more interested in her own success than our children’s.

A party and a government whose real beliefs, real priorities, are never clearer than when challenged on the tax breaks for private schools. That’s when the mask slips.

Because it isn’t Winchester, is it, where half the children fail to turn up at least one day a fortnight? It isn’t Charterhouse.  It isn’t Eton, and it isn’t Rugby. No.

For the Tories, the attendance crisis is always, and invariably, about other people’s children. So our approach starts with responsibility.


Parents have responsibilities. One of the things we do as parents that has the biggest impact on our children is making sure they go to school.

Not some days, or most days, but every day. Not because there are fines. Not because of the penalties. A far simpler, far more powerful reason. Not from fear, but from love. Not from cost, but from respect.

Because it’s right. Because its what’s best for the children we love. Because it’s the start they deserve.

Because we know that high and rising standards, opportunities, come from being in school, not out of it. Of course some children, some families, find school hard, find getting to school hard.

Too often they’ve been let down by health services that aren’t there, by systems that don’t work and structures that aren’t right.

They need support and help: Labour will not fail them. We are, will always be, the party of family. But let me be absolutely clear.

Cheaper holidays, birthday treats, not fancying it today, these are no excuses for missing school. Penalties must be part of the system, but they cannot be the answer alone.

Allowing your child to skip school without good reason shouldn’t just be cause for a fine. It’s deeper. It’s a mark of disrespect. For the children, the teachers, the school.

Because absences hurt not just the children missing, but the children there. They strike at the rhythm of teaching and learning for other children as well as your own.

They make it harder for other parents, for every teacher, to hold the line, to tell the truth: every day matters. And to make that real, then schools and trusts have responsibilities too.

To ensure school is inclusive and welcoming, academic and compassionate. To remember, when they make decisions on uniforms,

To make children smart, not poor. To make schools welcoming places where children thrive.

Because we want children to enjoy school, as part of achieving, not instead of achieving. High and rising standards are about imbuing a love of learning, not a fear of it.

About building the foundations for a society where learning never ends. And it’s because schools and trusts have those responsibilities that we will change the way they are inspected.

We will inspect trusts for the first time, because every part of our system needs to be a force for change. Because driving high and rising standards can’t be done behind a cloak.

We will bring in an annual inspection for issues that need checking more often. Absenteeism. Safeguarding. Off-rolling. Health and safety. Inspection is not improvement, but it enables it.

And the regional improvement teams we will bring mean that Labour will not wait for schools to fail before starting to turn them round. What’s more, the responsibilities of parents and schools must lock together.

School inspection today is high stakes for leaders and teachers, low information for parents and families. That can and must change. Labour will see parents, always, as partners in the push for better.

We will bring in report cards for schools, replacing headline grades, that help parents and teachers alike to share what’s great and where there’s space to improve.

High and rising standards, across all that schools do, for every child in every class. And governments have responsibilities too. Far beyond lessons.

Because families and schools work in a framework set down by government. Responsibility to set children up to attend, to achieve and thrive, which is why Labour will invest in mental health support, in school and out.

Why Labour will deliver over 6,500 more expert, qualified teachers, for our children.

Why we will resource speech & language interventions which start early, to knock out barriers to children’s learning as early and effectively as we can.

Why we will deliver quality careers guidance, and proper work experience. Why we will end the tax breaks for private schools, to deliver those changes our children need.

It’s why we will ensure every morning begins, in our primary schools, with free breakfast clubs so children are in on time and ready to learn, funded by ending tax advantages for the super-rich.

And responsibility, and our plan, goes far beyond schools. It means a country where child poverty is tackled head on not left to fester, where children grow up without hunger, fear, or cold.

And that approach to responsibility is rooted in partnership.

Partnership between schools and early years, to ensure that children are ready to succeed when they move to school.

Partnership between government and teachers, because complacency in the face of strikes shouldn’t be an index of ministerial steel.

Partnership with school support staff, just as important as teachers, who will get at last the national voice they deserve.

Partnership across places, to ensure that collaboration, not competition, is how we manage admissions and place-planning into the future.

Partnerships between schools, to spread success and effectiveness quickly and better.

Partnerships, because none of us achieve high and rising standards alone.


And partnership works when information is known, and information is shared.

We will bring in the register of home-schooled children that the Education Secretary couldn’t persuade the Prime Minister was important.

If children aren’t in school, local authorities need to be clear where they are.

Again – it’s about responsibility. It only works when there is visibility.

Children who are home-schooled deserve the same chances, the same opportunity, the same success, the same standards, as children in school.

And today that lack of visibility isn’t just about children who aren’t in school.

Too often, it’s about children in school too.

Because the information about children isn’t shared in the way it needs to be.

That must and that will change.

Where what health visitors know about a child, is shared with their nursery.

Where what the nursery has spotted, is shared with the school.

Where what one school knows, is shared with the next.

Today, too often, for too many children, that simply isn’t happening.

We need, and Labour will bring, a simple single number – like the NHS number – that holds records together, and stops children’s needs falling through gaps within schools and between them, between all the services that wrap around them.

Because that linkage allows us not just to support children with the issues they face today, but to help identify the challenges for tomorrow.

Because the vast opportunities of the technology we have today, of artificial intelligence, of data-mining, of the automated search for patterns and learning, the promise of a country and a culture where the drive for high and rising standards is embedded in all we do, all of that is useless if we don’t even collect and collate the information we have.

We could be empowering the best teaching in the world. With less time spent on marking, and more time on tailored interventions.

We could be driving workload down, and standards up.

Every school in the country could be learning from what has worked elsewhere, that term and that year.

Not technology for its own sake, but technology that enables and empowers, that makes every hour of teacher time more productive, every lesson better. That analyses and informs, assesses and enriches. That links up the information we hold, that makes real the partnership that drives the change we need, that supports every child to achieve and thrive.


Because that promise, of excellence for everyone, of education as a priority, of a country where children come first, is a promise that only a Labour government will make good.

It’s why we are determined to move at pace on an expert-led Curriculum and Assessment Review.

Making our curriculum richer, to deliver a stronger foundation in reading, writing, and maths.

Broader, so children don’t miss out on music, art, sport and drama.

Up to date, building the digital, speaking, and listening skills young people need to thrive today and tomorrow.

Inclusive, reflecting the issues and diversity of our society.

National, once again, because the curriculum is about what we value in one generation and provide for the next, for all our children in all our schools

And with rigorous assessments that capture that strength and breadth.


Let me be clear. All that is only the beginning. Keir set out our missions last year.

Rising growth, falling crime, healthy lives and greener power. And greatest of all, that for each of us, and for all of us, background must be no barrier to opportunity.

That the future is something we shape together, not face alone. That our best days are not long gone, but yet to come. And the policies I talk about today, that Labour talks about this year are simply the beginning of the change we’ll bring.

Labour is again the party of education, of opportunity. And the vision Labour has for education is at once simple, and powerful. Because we know the size of the change we need to see. The scale of the challenge we face.

And we are determined that however long it takes, however hard it may be, we will rise to that. To make education in England second to none, to deliver the better future our children and young people deserve.

An education that inspires them, a system that supports them, to go on learning all their lives long.

A country in short, where education is about excellence for everyone, where schools deliver high and rising standards for all our children, where everyone has the opportunity and support to succeed.

That is what Keir and I are determined to see. That is the future Labour thinks our children deserve. The difference a Labour government can and will bring.

As in 1964, as in 1997, a party that puts children first, a government that makes education its priority. This year, whenever the election comes, is our chance for change.

And time is running out to choose the future our children deserve. It’s time, once again, for Labour. Thank you.



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