The speech made by Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, on 28 April 2021.
Thank you, conference. It is a pleasure to speak to you this morning. Firstly so I can thank you, for the role you have played in the most difficult of circumstances.
You have been at the forefront of the most extraordinary and challenging year; a year that has seen the greatest disruption to young people’s learning we have known in peacetime. You have kept pupils, staff, and your school communities safe, and ensured pupils continued to learn in and outside the classroom.
The efforts of critical workers – in schools, in hospitals, in social care, and in all areas of our society – have been nothing short of heroic. And now, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, I believe that it is the duty of politicians to work closely with all of you who have helped to get us through the past year, so that we begin to rebuild our country together, with a new settlement for a fairer, more equal society, a prosperous economy that creates opportunities for all, a Britain that is the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in.
Nobody knows better than you and your colleagues the huge impact that this pandemic has had on the education, wellbeing, and life chances of our nation’s children.
But while teachers and leaders moved mountains to keep children learning remotely during the pandemic, we all know that the best place for children, for their learning, development, and wellbeing, is in school, in the classroom.
Yet the difficult truth is that no matter how good a job our schools and teachers do, education on its own cannot resolve the inequalities and injustices that damage the life chances of millions of children. What happens in the classroom, while hugely important, is shaped by the lives of children beyond the school gate.
And while that has been thrown into stark relief by the pandemic, as children were left without the resources to learn, and the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to ensuring they didn’t go hungry during school holidays, it was true even before coronavirus. The children in over-crowded accommodation, without devices for remote learning, with parents struggling to make ends meet, are the same children who have not seen their educational outcomes improve for a decade – those growing up in persistent poverty.
For those children, the attainment gap simply is not closing, and hasn’t been closing for years. And, at a time when the most disadvantaged children are facing ever greater challenges, schools area getting less funding to support them.
Changes to the pupil premium are leaving schools across the country thousands of pounds worse off. For many, they are losing more from this change than they have gained in catch-up funding. This is a dangerous false economy, taking resources out of the classroom at a time when they are needed more than ever.
Gavin Williamson and the Westminster government have simply not been honest about this, they have refused to publish any assessment of the financial impact of their own policies. But as every head knows, the lack of adequate resources to support the learning and recovery of the most disadvantaged children will only serve to embed the inequalities that already scar our society.
Inequalities that were too often ignored, even as they held back the opportunities of a generation of children, have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and in the months and years ahead they will become even worse if we return to business as usual.
So it must now be our collective mission to tackle those injustices and guarantee a bright future for all children as we rebuild our country.
That is something that we can only achieve by working together. Deeply embedded inequalities and the consequences of the last year cannot be fixed by Whitehall alone. It will need you, the education professionals 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.
And in many ways, the challenges of the last year have brought people closer together.
Parents working from home have been closer to their children’s learning than they ever were before. They have seen, first hand, the incredible work of both education staff and children and young people. Many parents now know more about what their children learn, the value of the education they receive, and the work that goes in to delivering it. They want a closer partnership with their children’s schools to continue in future
But it’s not just parents to whom schools are important. Schools are one of the only public services that will touch all of our lives, as children ourselves, and if we have children of our own; they are one of the most powerful means we have to shape the life chances of every child and the life of every community.
So we must harness that opportunity to ensure that every school acts as a genuine anchor for the whole of their community, bringing together people of all backgrounds with a common cause: to improve the lives of young people in every city, town, and village in England.
The task is not just about teaching and learning. Children cannot enjoy their childhood or achieve their full potential if we do not work together to address the persistent, pernicious link between poverty and educational outcomes.
On this, Labour has a proud record in government, one that I am still happy to stand beside ten years later.
We delivered a huge and sustained fall in child poverty, while investing in schools and the early years. We transformed the life chances of a generation of children and their families because that was a priority not just for successive education secretaries, but for every part of our government.
And it is that commitment to children’s futures that we will again take in to office after the next election.
With a central role for our schools as civic institutions at the heart of every community.
Schools as places where educators and employers, voluntary & community organisations and public services, families and professionals, all work together to improve children’s outcomes and prospects. The power of schools to transform lives does not begin and end with the sound of the school bell; but it is an opportunity we have every day, as millions of children pass through them, one of the only public services we can be sure they will access.
And it is this role as anchors of their community, above and beyond their core function of education, that means schools can evolve to offer wraparound care, holiday activities, extracurricular activity, support for parents.
Labour’s call for breakfast clubs in every school exemplifies this wider role for schools as civic institutions. By extending the school day to offer a healthy breakfast to every child, we get them ready to learn, improve attainment, give time for socialising with teachers and friends, support their emotional wellbeing. And we can also take the chance to involve volunteers, work with business, and make life a little easier for millions of working parents, particularly mothers.
This policy would help millions of children every day, in every city, town, and village in England. It is a small investment that we can make in the future of every child, to help guarantee a bright future for all.
It’s one small example of how an extended school offer can make a difference, to children, their families, their employers, and the wider community.
The Confederation of School Trusts has always argued that schools and school trusts are civic institutions, and that your leaders are civic leaders. That civic mission can bring our communities and schools together in the months ahead, as we build a new future for schools and children across the country.
But we must recognise that the schools system we have now is not a perfect one, and that schools’ role as civic institutions also means schools working more effectively with one another to advance education for the public good and for every child in the local community.
While we have world class schools with world class leaders and staff, our school system is fragmented, opaque, and over-complex – to the detriment of pupils and wider society. Instead of one school system we have several.
Schools operate as their own admissions authorities, have different levels of accountability to their community and to government, and there is no consistent role or voice for parents.
They are incentivised to compete against one another, and to operate admissions and exclusions policies that serve the interests of some children at the expense of others. Governance and decision making have become detached from the local community.
The Secretary of State’s answer this morning – every school in an academy trust – is based on a simplistic dichotomy between strong trusts and failing maintained schools.
The reality is more complicated, with all the evidence demonstrating that it is the quality of teaching and school leadership, not structure, that determines a school’s success.
So while Labour has long said that schools working together in families is the right way to go, this top down solution cannot guarantee successful outcomes for all children, their families and communities, and is at odds with the role of local communities to determine the schools that work for them and that represent their local needs and priorities.
This is not criticising the extraordinary work that goes on in individual schools, academies or trusts every single day to transform the lives of the children they educate.
So I want to make an open invitation, to you, to your profession, to parents, and to local political leaders and representatives, to work with me, to come together with ideas and solutions that achieve the best outcomes for every child and help rebuild strong and resilient communities.
My priorities will be to ensure the system is responsive and accountable to local needs; that it attracts, supports, and retains world class staff, in the classroom and among school leaders; encourages fairness, cooperation, and transparency between schools; and gives a clear and powerful voice to the communities they serve and work in.
A system that ensures that every child gets the knowledge and skills they need in a broad curriculum; that wellbeing is front and centre in every school; that education professionals are genuinely empowered to improve lives; and every child in every school receives a world class education.
The work of you, your colleagues, and all those who work in schools will be essential to meeting that challenge. Because we know that nothing matters more for educational outcomes than the teaching a child receives, which means that training, retaining, and investing in the teaching profession is one of the most important things that a government can do to improve outcomes for children.
Sadly, in the last ten years, that has simply not been the case.
The last decade has seen real terms cuts to pay that have left teachers thousands of pounds worse off in real terms, top-down structural changes that have pushed up workloads and driven teachers from the classroom, and, even in this last year, the teaching profession and its representatives have been treated by the Secretary of State not as allies in meeting a national challenge but as a problem to be solved, or a political enemy to be briefed against.
That does a gross disservice to you and to all those who work in schools. It ignores the huge role you play in enabling every child to reach their potential, and that, in the last year, you have gone above and beyond all that could be expected from you.
But I know that it takes more than warm words to keep you in the classroom, and it takes more than promises from politicians to build a world-class teaching profession. That is why I want to give you a voice in the work we do, to tell me what it is that can keep teachers in our schools, that can support them to grow as professionals, and empower them to change lives.
This is one of the most important things that Labour can do in government, but it is not something that we can do alone. That is why I hope that you will join us in meeting that challenge, so that we can all work towards our shared goal – a bright future for every child, one where every child can fulfil their potential.
The first White Paper published by the Confederation of School Trusts begins with the words of Kofi Annan:
“There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children.”
Those words have never been more important than now, as, in Britain and across the world, children begin to emerge from a year of disruption that would have been unimaginable a little over a year ago.
It is a trust that we all hold, and it is tied to a promise that we are all responsible for – to offer to the next generation greater opportunities than we ourselves had.
The last decade – which has seen cuts to education spending, rising child poverty, stagnant real wages, and, now, a global pandemic – has made it harder to fulfil that promise.
But as we emerge from one of the most difficult years most of us will ever have known, we must grasp the opportunity to rebuild our country, to enrich the life of every child, and give them the chance to fulfil their potential.
That is why earlier this year, we set up our Bright Future taskforce, to help us devise the solutions that children across the country need as we recover from the pandemic and look to their future. The taskforce has been clear that those solutions must be far reaching, covering policy and practice not just in, but beyond, the classroom. Because they know and I know that it is only by listening to and working with the wider community – the staff in our schools, the experts who work around them, young people, their parents, civil society, businesses and employers – and putting schools as civic institutions at the heart of our communities, that we will deliver on our ambition, that Britain will be the best country for every child to grow up in.
I very much look forward to working with you to make the vision a reality.