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Bridget Phillipson calls for a Britain where children come first

Bridget Phillipson, Shadow Secretary of State for Education
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Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary at the Progressive Britain Conference

I want to start by thanking all of you.

Not just for being here today, not just for the work I know you will have done for the local elections, but also for sustaining the focus on what Labour can do in government over many, many years.

I didn’t join the Labour Party to see us in opposition. I joined to see us change this country and the world for good. So I want us focused not just on the progress we make as a Labour Party, vital as that is, but on the change we will make in Britain.

Not just how we win power, but how we go on to use power.

And that’s timely. Because the results last week show we are back on the road to government now.

This month marks a quarter of a century since we last won a general election from opposition.

It is a good time to reflect on what has changed in our country.

On how we need to change ourselves, and the change we need, to achieve the future we want.

So I want to thank Nathan and all the team at Progressive Britain for giving me the chance to speak today.

And I want to thank him for letting me talk about something that should be central to any government’s vision and programme for Britain, but for which the Conservatives have no vision, no plan, and no ambition.

Growing up in Britain.

It’s what it means – or should mean – to be a child in this country, to be a young person here.

What it should mean, to put children at the centre of our thinking, not just as a priority for resources, but in defining the problems and the solutions we face.

How we think about their education, not just as the individuals of the future, but as shaping the society of the future.

How we think of young people not just as the workers and employees of the future, crucial as those jobs and opportunities are, but as the people of the future, the match-goers, the museum- and gallery- goers, the people who throng to playing fields, gardens and parks at the weekends, the artists, the walkers, the activists and campaigners,

the inventors, artists, thinkers and poets, the partners and parents, carers and volunteers, and of course, the voters. 

How we understand the roles of parents, families, schools, and government, in making sure every child gets the opportunity to achieve and to thrive.

And the more I see of this government, the clearer it becomes:

they do not, they cannot, they will not think of children like that.

You might think I am being unfair.

I tell you, I’m not.

In the statement the Chancellor made to Parliament alongside his spring statement, back in March, the only mention of children was about Ukraine.

And the word ‘children’ does not appear as much as once in the Spring Statement itself.

Children don’t even register in the Chancellor’s thinking.

And this isn’t just about short term announcements.

Look at the government’s response to the National Infrastructure Assessment, a huge document published back in 2018, setting out

Britain’s needs far into the future.

The response runs to over 40 pages. Not a mention.

The government’s own National Infrastructure Strategy?

Young people get one mention; children, none.

To the Conservatives, the society of the future is peopled by adults whose appearance in the population, seems to be taken for granted, to arrive without comment, to elicit no curiosity, to have inspired no thought about how changing the economy and society of tomorrow might start by improving the childhood of today.

It is breathtaking, and yet it runs through not just their documents but their decisions.

We have seen it for twelve long years of their government, as real terms funding for children dropped for year after year.

We’ve seen it in our schools, as a focus on seeing children as the employees of the future, not the society of the future, has narrowed the curriculum time and again.

We saw it in the pandemic, when at every turn children were an afterthought for this government, when the support they needed to learn at home was delayed, when exams were thrown into chaos for not one year but two, and when pubs were reopened before schools.

We saw it last summer, when the Chancellor said he’d maxed out on supporting children’s recovery.

We see it now, 25 months after the school’s first closed to most pupils, when the tutoring programme is such a mess, that even the Secretary of State won’t call it a success. 

We see it as our young people leave education, too often without the skills they need to succeed, neither ready for work nor ready for life.

And we see it every morning and every afternoon, when parents can’t afford the high quality, enriching childcare they’d like for their kids,

when the cost of after-school clubs is higher than median wages,

when parents pay over the odds for each hour of childcare, because the Conservatives decided the government won’t pay the going rate for the places they promised.

We see it in the priorities the government has.

The things they delay. 

The things that never happen.

The lack of progress, year in, year out, on improving children’s social care. 

The SEND review, repeatedly delayed as the government argued with itself.

The promised arts premium scrapped altogether.     

We see it in the way government puts up taxes for low income families again and again, when they slash universal credit and plunge hundreds of thousands of children into poverty.

We see it in the failure on climate change and the lack of ambition for Net Zero, in the carelessness for future generations that their failure betrays.

It’s a pattern, and a powerful one.

Children, quite simply, are being failed by this government.

It will be my mission as Education Secretary to turn that around.

Now, Westminster sometimes makes it easy for politicians to forget the big picture for our country.

Encourages us to focus on the media cycle, the drama, the personalities.

Encourages us to think in terms of departments, institutions, agencies.

Laws, regulations, interventions.

But if we are to succeed, we have to raise our gaze, and widen our vision. 

Because that’s not how life is lived, it’s not how children grow up.

Children alive today can expect to live into the next century.

It’s Labour’s responsibility not just to think about their nurseries, their schools, their colleges, and their universities, but bigger: about what it means to grow up in this country, what the country they inherit will become.

And I can tell you, 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.

Optimism that even in a time when so much goes wrong, a better world is possible, that we should build a future of hope not fear.

I am determined that in government, Labour will match that ambition, which the Tories temper.

That we will justify that optimism, not retreat into fear.

Like the Ukrainian government, which has matched the ambition of their children in the face of adversity and war, and set up virtual schools to keep education going.

Like the young people at the centre of campaigns to save our natural world and tackle the climate emergency, whose ambition deserves a government that looks fifty years ahead not five years ahead.

Like the young people whose response to the refugee crises in Syria and Ukraine has been to raise money to support others, whose ambition for a better world knows no borders.

It’s why the challenge for Labour is to define afresh the role there is for government, the role for parents and families, and how those roles work with each other.

Because when support from families and support from government works together, we can ensure every child succeeds.

And when they don’t work together, it is our children who are let down,

our children who are failed, our children who suffer, and all of us, children and adults alike, whose futures are poorer.

For me this is 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 just as schools and nurseries, colleges and universities, work in a framework set down by government, for which governments must be held accountable; so too do families.

Because when families can’t afford to feed their kids, children are being failed.

When families can’t afford to take their kids out for the day, can’t afford an ice-cream in the park or a ride at the fair, children are being failed. 

When mams and dads don’t see their kids in evenings, or at the weekend, because they have to work extra hours to pay the bills, children are being failed.

When parents skimp on food themselves, find themselves exhausted and tired, without time and energy to spend with their kids, children are being failed.

And when the cost of childcare – not just for two to four year olds, but for the whole time from the end of maternity leave to the start of secondary school – from ensuring parents can choose whether to go back to work, to affordable breakfast clubs, to after school activities so parents don’t always need to be at school at 3pm, when all of that is quite literally pricing people out of parenting – then children and families are being failed.

And that failure isn’t just about the individual kids and individual families this government fails, though there are millions of them and that is bad enough.

Our whole country is failed when we let our children down.

It’s a cliché to say children are the future, but it’s true.

But something bigger is true too.

When we put children first, when we think of them first, we build a better future.

It’s an obvious point, but an important one: not all of us have children, but each of us was a child.

From opposition, and in government, our thinking needs to start there.

Children’s lives are the beginning of all our lives.

They aren’t just the concern of schools, nurseries, colleges and universities.

They aren’t just the concern of parents and families.

For a country, for a society, which looks to the long term, which thinks about the future as something we shape as well as face, then children are the start of every future success – for individuals and for us all.

For a party like ours, which wins when we own the future, focusing on children is the frame to drive electoral success.

And for me, that shift in focus from how the Conservatives think has to run through all that we do from opposition and all that we will do in government.

Like every parent, I’d do anything for my kids.

And that’s the attitude to all our children that Labour will have from government.

No child in this country missing out.

Every child, in every school and every family, deserves the best start in life and deserves a happy and healthy childhood.

And so many of the things we need to do as a society, that start with putting children first, make Britain a better country.

It’s why a Labour government would be taking a very different approach to the disruption of the pandemic.

If I had been Secretary of State then on the very day schools and nurseries closed to most children in March 2020,  that was the day I would have started work on three plans.

An immediate plan, to support children’s learning and development remotely, and as fully as possible, while lockdown went on.

An urgent plan, to reopen schools safely and quickly, and once open again, to keep them open so children could learn together and play together.

And critically, a plan to ensure that when lockdown ended, children’s education and wellbeing did not suffer in the long term.

We will build a Britain where children come first.

Our Children’s Recovery Plan put children and their futures at the heart of how we think about moving on from the pandemic.

Because every child in Britain did more to follow the Covid rules than the Prime Minister did.

The impact that had on their health and educational attainment needs addressing, not ignoring.

We would introduce breakfast clubs, so every child starts their day with a proper meal.

Afterschool activities, so every child gets to learn and experience art, music, drama, and sport.

Mental health support, because every report we see tells us children’s development has fallen behind in the pandemic.

Continued professional development for teachers, because every child deserves teachers second to none to support their learning.

Targeted extra investment, right from early years through to further education, to support the children at risk of falling behind, because attainment gaps open up early, and need tackling early.

And it’s child-centred, future-centred thinking that lies behind so many of our announcements last autumn.

A National Excellence Programme, to drive up standards in schools because every child deserves to go to a school with high expectations, and high achievements.

Thousands upon thousands of new teachers, in subjects with shortages right now, because every child deserves to be a taught maths and physics by people who love their subjects, and every child deserves a chance to be introduced to a love of sports, music, art, and drama.

A Skills Commission, because every young person needs to leave education ready for work and ready for life.

Careers guidance in every school, work experience for every child, because each of us deserves to succeed at work, and government has a role to play in ensuring it happens.

And it’s the thinking that underpins the approach we have taken in recent months to schools and Covid, to the curriculum, to inspection, to governance.

It’s why we want a curriculum where we teach children not just the past they will inherit, but the future they will build, where the citizens of tomorrow think of our climate today not as the warmest of the century past but the coolest of the century to come, where they learn about the challenge of Net Zero and the climate emergency we face.

It’s why we want an inspection system for our schools that doesn’t just look at the institutions that children interact with, but the institutions that can be forces for good in their lives – not just the schools, but trusts as well.

It’s why we want an approach to how our schools are run that focuses on whether children achieve and thrive in them, not the name on their uniforms or the hours they are there.

It’s why we have a determination to see childcare not as a passing, costly, phase in the lives of others, but as the foundation of opportunity in the lives of every child and every parent.

Because it’s in those first few years that the attainment gap opens up for our children.  

It doesn’t need to be like that.

In power, Labour acted decisively to tackle that disadvantage, support families and children, and to close that gap.

A generation grew up with Sure Start, with Children’s Centres.

A generation, like me, were supported after sixteen with Education Maintenance Allowance.

I saw then, in my own community, the difference those changes made

I see it now, in the better lives of young people who grew up with that advantage, with the support it unlocked.

Twenty years later, the evidence around both attainment and early intervention is clearer and stronger than it was even then.

Which means the choice the Tories make, not to tackle these issues, not to put children and their families at the heart of how they govern, more clearly a political choice than ever before.

And the choices we need are also political choices.

To make childhood healthy and safe, making sure parents can afford decent food for their children, in secure and inclusive communities.

To see our children achieve and thrive, growing up with knowledge and skills, confidence and resilience.

Stepping up to shape their futures, and ours, with passion and conviction.

Leaving education ready for work and ready for life, so they succeed and flourish in the world they build.

In families with the time to love, shaped by the choices of parents not the costs of childcare, with grandparents seeing their grandchildren as a blessing and a pleasure, not a task to make ends meet.

Because we see Britain not as millions of households, but as millions of families.

Where every child deserves to be part of a strong and loving family, of whatever shape, and whatever size.

Because while these are huge challenges, today is a time of huge opportunity, and as we look across the world, huge inspiration.

The pandemic has been a time when we have looked routinely to international comparisons – looked to countries with histories, cultures, and politics very different from our own – to see how we can do differently, and do better.

And yet wherever we look, the direction is clear.

In America, the Biden administration has ambition on childcare unmatched in history, sending a package to Congress which would offer universal and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, 

the largest expansion of universal and free education in a century,

capping the cost of childcare and driving up availability.

In Australia a week today, people will go to the polls in a campaign that has centred day after day on the Coalition’s failure on childcare –

the financial cost to families, the social cost to children, the economic cost to the country.

Our ambition in government must be to match the ambition of our children and of progressives across the world.

And we do that by looking to the future, by owning the future, by making the challenges of the future the concerns today, by building a social democracy not of fear but of hope, and by putting children, childhood, and education at the heart of our vision.

We have that vision, that ambition, that optimism.

Above all we have the determination to see our children succeed and our country succeed.

The challenge for me, for you, and for all of us as politicians and activists, is simple:

To build, through our policy, the vision of what it will mean to grow up under Labour.

To share, through our communications, that vision of the better, more hopeful, future that childhood should be and should bring.

To own, as our party, that vision of a society of which we can all be proud.

And in power, to make, as a government, the change we need, the reality we see.

Thank you.

Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary

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