This week is very much education and health week. We celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NHS on Wednesday, while teachers go on strike on the same day and on Friday too. Labour is focusing on education, with a big speech from Keir Starmer expected later this week on opportunities and access.
This means Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Philipson was busy banging the drum for Labour’s education plans all day. Speaking on LBC, she said she’s confident a Labour government could turn things around on recruitment and retention of teachers, young people’s mental health, state schools’ funding and much more.
Philipson is clear about what her priorities are, and one of them is ensuring “state schools are so much butter so that parents don’t even consider private education”. Part of this would be achieved through Labour’s plan to scrap the charitable status for private schools, meaning they would be subject to VAT. “I just don’t believe we can continue justifying tax breaks to private schools when we can spend that money more efficiently”, she said.
She was also explicit in her stance on the strikes taking place this week, predictably placing the blame squarely on Conservative governments and past austerity measures. “If the secretary of state was serious about negotiating, if she was prepared to sit at the table with the teaching unions, the strikes wouldn’t happen”, she said.
Thankfully on education, Labour is providing not only the usual lines of attack but also workable policies which it plans to implement if it makes it to government. For instance, Philipson has plans for universal breakfast clubs in every primary school. She’s right to focus on this issue: it’s widely acknowledged that starting the day with a good meal makes a huge difference for kids from lower-income families who might otherwise not be able to eat until lunch. It impacts attendance, behaviour and academic performance and is something teachers have been campaigning for a long time, especially in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.
Labour has also plans to make the profession appealing again; current levels of vacancies show that people don’t go into education for a whole variety of reasons including pay and available resources in schools. More than 30 per cent of teachers who qualified in the last 11 years have left the profession. Starmer will say more about this later in the week, but one of the ways in which they plan to tackle recruitment and retention is by giving teachers who work for two years a £2,400 reward.
To improve the general performance of many state schools, Labour also wants to send regional teams of teachers to struggling schools to provide advice and support on things like students’ behaviour and gaps in the curriculum.
Education is a difficult beat, but Philipson seems determined to prove she’ll be up to the task. She comes to the brief with experience, and a degree of open-mindedness – she’s admitted she’s been speaking not only to former Labour education secretaries but also looking at the work of Michael Gove when he was at the department in 2010. Her litmus test will be whether she’s able to mend the broken relationship between teachers and government.