What Does Labour Have in Mind?

What Does Labour Have in Mind?

Shadow Education Minister delivers significant policy speech at event hosted by Centre for Social Justice, committing to registers of EHE children and unique ID numbers for all children

What’s been said?

This Byte comments further on an important speech already noted in a recent Stop Press addendum .

On Tues 9 January, Labour’s Shadow Education Minister Bridget Phillipson set out her pre-election stall at a Centre for Social Justice event, live video; the full text was published on the LabourList website.

Early in her speech, Phillipson had challenged the prevailing ‘myth’ that “today in England, the Government educates our children well”. She went on to tell her audience that “this is no longer true,” (did home educators ever believe it was?) thereby constructing herself a platform to introduce Labour’s shiny new improvements which, given time, will solve all those inherited problems in the educational sphere. It’s that time of year after all, the start of a new term, in an election year – the ideal moment to run the other side down and advocate for those much needed changes which the opposition stands ready to implement.

There was rhetoric a-plenty and some classic sound-bytes – “As a politician, my duty is to tell truths, not to peddle myths” – alongside details of Tory failings during their last fourteen years in office.

Why does it matter?

Viewed through a home educator’s lens, there were moments when Phillipson seemed to be getting closer to the heart of the problem, “Something has been going wrong in England’s schools. Something big…” But it soon became apparent that her concerns were connected to system failings, and her proposed solutions were still system-related, rather than truly radical. She rightly observed that the government’s Attendance Action Alliance was falling short of the challenge, ‘tackl[ing] the symptoms, not the causes’, but the solutions proposed by Labour are a cause for concern for other reasons – see below.

As Phillipson addressed the matter of school absence, phrases such as “the expectation that all our children belong in a classroom” made it increasingly evident that her party fully endorses the “education happens in school” mentality, brooking little space for alternatives.

Granted, there was seemingly genuine empathy for those with SEND issues who were not getting the support they needed in school, “They and their families left to struggle in a failing system…” But parental responsibilities were couched solely in terms of making sure their children attended school without fail. At best, parents were viewed as team players in the ‘partnership for change’ which Phillipson envisions. No key stakeholders with primary responsibility for the education of their own children here.

The next alarm bell to ring was the assertion (amid the list of Tory failings) that Labour stand ready to rectify the lack of registers of children taught at home:

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

But look how the narrative developed when she returned to this theme, noting well where it leads:

“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.” [Emphasis added]

“Labour,” stated Phillipson, “are, will always be, the party of family.” In the context of school inspection, she had already asserted that “Labour will see parents, always, as partners in the push for better.” Though her ‘every child matters’ and ‘excellence is for everyone’ rhetoric may sound warm, fuzzy and inclusive, the vision being outlined here is one of parents as necessary though lesser partners in the implementation of state-supervised educational outcomes for all “our children.” Does anyone else find it slightly worrying that that little phrase occurs almost thirty times in the course of this speech? Whose children was that? Yours or the state’s?

By criticising the Tories’ lack of care for “other people’s children” and portraying Labour as “the party of family,” this speech cleverly paves the way for a benevolent, inclusive, caring Labour government to take greater and greater responsibility for the nation’s children, ‘home-schooled’ ones included. But those little throwaway lines such as “families and schools work[ing] in a framework set down by government” should send a shiver down the spine of any advocates for genuine educational freedom.

What can I do?

As HE parents, we know that political change in educational institutions is only cosmetic. It’s not the fundamental shift of focus that is needed if every child is to receive an “education which is suitable” for them. Phillipson’s proposals do not put parents back in the driving seat where they should be, if every child is to receive personalised education. In fact, all the evidence indicates that things are moving in the opposite direction, and very quickly.

So unfortunately this is not looking like a time to sit back and enjoy the view after everyone’s exertions with the recently closed consultation. There are several issues to consider, and possibly raise with your MP.

First, listen to or read Phillipson’s speech. Get behind the rhetoric to the message. Think what is really meant by phrases like “responsibility that is rooted in partnership.” Give careful thought to the implications for the primacy of parents in this vision for state-supervised education.

If you have a Labour MP, tell them how concerned you were about aspects of this speech, including registers and particularly the single identifying number and proposals for vastly increased inter-agency data-sharing.

This could also be an opportunity for expressing concern about how easily the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill progressed through its stages in the Commons, with very little objection/scrutiny. For further information, see Defend Digital Me’s summary of their concerns and detailed KC’s legal opinion.

And you could also take the opportunity of raising any difficulties you experienced in responding to the recent consultation about revised EHE guidance.

In an election year, opposition candidates seeking votes should be willing to give a hearing to constituents’ views about their party’s intended policies. They should also be willing to represent those constituents whose views they personally do not agree with, so they should listen to any well-presented, evidenced complaints about the way the recent consultation was conducted.


Whilst this article was being written, a politically motivated Opposition Day Debate 2hr watch / Hansard transcript was called at short notice on Tues 23 Jan, with Phillipson, having just presented an Opposition Bill of her own to be debated on 7 Feb, then proposing a motion to pre-empt Flick Drummond’s Private Member’s Bill scheduled for second reading on 15 March.

Predictably, Labour’s motion was soundly defeated, as it represented a bare-faced attempt by the opposition to undermine the government’s authority. This does not render the event insignificant though. It confirmed the cross-party determination to bring in CNiS registers.

It was a lively and very informative affair, revealing how widespread are the problems causing non-attendance, with many of the participants referencing SEND-related issues raised with them by their own constituents.

We’ll take a closer look at this debate in a future Byte. Before then, however, we plan to comment on an offensive remark made by ex-Education Minister, Lord Nash in a question to Phillipson following her speech at the CSJ.