‘Re-writing the story of educational disadvantage in our country’

Speech by Wes Streeting MP

Shadow Schools Minister

Foundation for Education Development National Education Summit

Thursday 4th March 2021



Since its inception, the Foundation for Education Development has understood the need for long-term thinking in the development of education policy and this week’s conference been just the tonic we needed.

Uplifting, visionary and inspiring. Exactly what a good education should be.

So, while I’m conscious that I’ve got some tough acts to follow, I’m delighted to be with you this morning to give my first speech as Shadow Schools Minister.

A great state education changed my life. It enabled a boy from Stepney growing up on a council estate in east London to become one of the few kids on free school meals to make it to Cambridge University.

Without it, I wouldn’t be addressing you today.

It’s why I’m passionate about the transformational power of education, not simply as a means of social mobility for a few, but as an engine of social justice to provide opportunity and security for everyone.


Keir Starmer wants Britain to be the best place in the world to grow up in and the best place to grow old in.

This is the essence of Labour’s vision for our country and, while I’ll be focusing my contribution today on schools, if we’re to deliver on that vision, lifelong learning must run through it like a golden thread.

So I want to begin by opening the door to all of you, on behalf of Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green and the entire shadow education team, to work with us, to advise us, to challenge us and support us, as we think afresh about how we bring that vision to life and rewrite the story of educational disadvantage in our country.

It’s how I want the next Labour government to operate – working together to:

  • raise standards
  • narrow the attainment gap
  • and prepare young people for a future they can look forward to.

Working with the profession, restoring the sense of trust and partnership that has sadly been lost under the present government, particularly during the pandemic.


The covid-19 crisis has presented the biggest challenge for our schools in peacetime.

I want to acknowledge up front the immense pressure this has placed on all our staff working in schools and throughout the education system.

There hasn’t been nearly enough recognition of the lengths that our school leaders and staff have gone to in order to keep pupils learning, whether in school or from home, and to look out for pupils’ wellbeing, whilst also struggling with their own.

I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the extraordinary effort you’ve made in the most extraordinary circumstances.

I also want to recognise that it isn’t all doom and gloom.

There have been developments and innovations in online learning and teaching that we should seek to build upon in the aftermath of the pandemic. Sir Tim Brighouse’s exhortation earlier this week that we should seek to evolve the Oak National Academy into the schooling equivalent of the Open University is a good example of that kind of thinking.

Children and young people are resilient, and I’ve seen countless examples of that in my own constituency and across the country.

And for some children, for a variety of reasons, having time at home has been a positive experience. We ought to consider why that is and what lessons we could learn for their return to the classroom.

But we also know that despite the best efforts of staff, parents and carers, and pupils themselves, lockdown has had a detrimental impact on the education and wellbeing of children and young people across our country.

According to the Department for Education, all year groups have experienced a loss in reading and there are signs that the learning loss has been even greater in maths.

We’ve seen a significant amount of regional variation in terms of learning loss as the impact of the virus has been felt differently in different parts of the country.

Staff in early years and primary schools report children returning having regressed on things like toilet training, and responding well to their classmates and instruction from their teacher.

This year has been particularly challenging for disabled pupils and others with special educational needs, their parents and carers, and staff working in special schools.

And we know that schools with high levels of disadvantage have experienced higher levels of learning loss than other schools, particularly at secondary level.

We owe it to this generation of children and young people to make sure that the story of this pandemic isn’t one of lasting damage, disappointment or missed opportunities – to make sure that they’re not written off as ‘generation covid’.

That’s why last week’s announcement of the Government’s latest support for pupil ‘catch up’ was so deeply disappointing.

  • A funding package that amounted to 43 pence, per pupil, per day
  • A one-off Recovery Premium that amounts to £6,000 for the average primary school and £22,000 for the average secondary school – not even enough to fund an additional full-time member of staff
  • And an expansion to the National Tutoring Programme which, even when fully rolled out alongside the academic mentors, won’t reach even half of all those on free school meals, let alone the many others that would benefit from additional support.

This isn’t just a question of how much money government is spending, but also about how it’s being spent.

Take the £200million set aside to deliver face-to-face summer schools for secondary pupils.

Why isn’t Government mobilising the vast amounts of experience and expertise from our youth organisations, the voluntary sector, wraparound childcare providers, artists, performers, musicians, and sports clubs – all of which have taken a battering during the pandemic – to give kids a summer of activities with their friends?

A summer to look forward to.

A programme of sport, creativity and play. A chance to rediscover friendships and develop active minds and bodies. A recovery for children that’s centred on their wellbeing, as well as their education.

A summer they would never forget.

I’m afraid this is all depressingly predicable and predictably depressing.

Because for all the understandable concern about the impact of the pandemic on young people, we should not lose sight of the fact that we went into this pandemic with rising child poverty, progress to close the attainment gap stalling, in some cases even widening, and school funding lower in real terms today than it was when Labour left office.

Indeed, the Education Policy Institute, in their annual report last year, estimated that on the basis of the previous five-year trend it would take 500 years to close the attainment gap.

So, the challenge facing our country in the next decade is far greater than the one outlined by the Education Secretary in his speech on Monday: of catching up on lost learning over the last year.

It is to rewrite the story of educational disadvantage in Britain.

To open minds, broaden horizons and give every child in our country access to the world of opportunities that the 21st century offers them.


It is no coincidence that progress to close the attainment gap has stalled as child poverty has increased. They are inextricably linked. We won’t have a successful strategy for improving outcomes and closing the attainment gap unless we have a successful strategy for ending child poverty.

There are now 4.2 million children in this country living in poverty. The Social Mobility Commission estimated that – as a result of the Government’s OWN policies – child poverty will increase to 5.2 million by next year – and that was before the pandemic.

The number of people living in temporary accommodation in this country has risen not just every year since 2011 but every quarter, of every year, and the number of families with children living in bed and breakfasts is up since 2010. The result is kids pushed from pillar to post in temporary accommodation with huge consequences for their learning.

The last Labour government recognised that families matter, which is why we put child benefit up by 26% and gave working parents the child tax credit. The new deal helped 1.8 million people into work. A million social homes were brought up to a decent standard. Three million children received child trust funds. The Labour Government’s policies lifted more than two million children out of poverty. The Tory Government’s policies are pushing children into poverty.

The next Labour Government will play our part in helping schools to get the very best out of their children, by attacking the poverty that holds them back.


To do this, we need a place-based approach to improving education outcomes in those areas where attainment currently falls far short of what we should expect for children living in those communities.

Opportunity Areas are the Government’s answer and whilst those working in them are superb, structurally this solution isn’t up to the scale of the challenge. Their focus and funding is too short-term and there are far more than 10 areas in need. The Government isn’t thinking ambitiously enough, or long-term enough, about how the fortunes of towns and communities are tied into educational outcomes and vice versa.

Other people clearly are. Listening to Dame Julia Cleverdon talking about her work in Blackpool yesterday reinforced to me that the agenda for place-based improvement goes well beyond the remit of Opportunity Areas.

Leora Cruddas and the Confederation of School Trusts have developed an impressive vision for school trusts as civic institutions.

And Andy Burnham offered us some bold thinking about the role that mayors and local government could play if given the opportunity.

Local government are experts on place. School trusts are experts on education. I think there’s a way of bringing them together to transform the life chances and opportunities by recognising, as we do, that the conditions outside the school gates do so much to determine what happens within them. This matters so much more than the name of the school, or who it’s sponsored by, so let’s follow the evidence as the basis of school reform and devolution in England, rather than returning to the tried and tired ideologically driven agenda outlined by the Education Secretary on Monday.


Turning to factors that impact on life chances within the school gates, the most precious resource we have within our schools are the people who work in them.

All the evidence shows that, if we want to make the most difference to children’s life chances and opportunities, and close the attainment gap, investing in teaching, more teaching, and high-quality teaching is the best way to do it.

If we’re serious about making Britain the best place in the world to grow up, this has to be the best place in the world to be a teacher.

That means recruiting the very best teachers we can, investing in their ongoing professional development, and empowering them as professionals to drive school improvement.

So where is the Government’s ambition to recruit a new generation into teaching? Where is the call-up for those experienced staff who’ve left the profession early or who’ve retired to make a return—to mobilise the cavalry, reduce class sizes, and enable more small group and one-to-one teaching within schools?

There is a real danger that the pandemic is masking the scale of the recruitment and retention challenge in schools and breeding complacency within Government. Why else would they have scrapped the training bursary across initial teacher training, cut funding rates for the national rollout of its early career framework and frozen staff pay for the year ahead?

We know what a difference expert leadership makes for a school community. I’m really worried that we’ll lose existing leaders and potential leaders in the aftermath of this pandemic. Nurturing the talent pipeline to senior leadership, developing emerging leaders and supporting existing school leaders should be a priority.


Then there’s the question of funding. The last decade has been challenging for schools facing real term budget cuts, particularly those serving the most disadvantaged communities where, in recent years, the Government has lost sight of the importance of deprivation-linked funding. There is no doubt that this is has had a serious and detrimental impact on outcomes.

I’m particularly concerned by how many pupils leave primary schools without the literacy and numeracy they’ll need to access the secondary curriculum, but it’s also clear that the Government’s approach to early years sees too many children’s life chances effectively predetermined by the time they arrive at school at the age of five.

Contrast this with the last Labour Government where funding per pupil doubled, there were 48,000 more teachers, and 230,000 more support staff and teaching assistants. We saw the impact in terms of outcomes for pupils.

Children’s recovery from this pandemic should have been a priority for the Chancellor, but during yesterday’s budget statement he didn’t mention children once. His budget contained nothing new on catch-up, nothing to support children’s mental health and wellbeing, and no sign of a long term plan to help their recovery. This is a total betrayal of young people who are looking for support and reassurance that we will not allow their life chances and opportunities to become the silent casualties of coronavirus.

Even after this budget, school funding will still be lower in real terms than it was when Labour left office. That’s why we need a credible plan for the long-term, sustained investment that our schools need to undo the damage caused by a decade of cuts and once again put great education at the heart of Britain’s future.



Of course, the challenges of the next decade won’t simply be met by throwing money at them. Investment must go hand in hand with reform. We have more evidence available to us about what works and what makes the most difference to education outcomes than we’ve ever had. So let’s use it.

And as the challenges created by the pandemic have disrupted business as usual, let’s seize the moment to reconsider traditional orthodoxies and ways of doing things.

Whether on curriculum, assessment or accountability there is plenty of scope for doing things differently. We’re up for that challenge. As Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green says: “Don’t tell us what you want to scrap, tell us what you want to build”.

We’re already doing things differently by necessity and we’re likely to go on doing things differently for some time to come. The test will be: when the crisis passes and life returns to normal, are we doing things better than we did before?

That’s the challenge I want us to meet.

We want to rewrite the story of educational disadvantage in our country. We can only do that with you, working together.

Thank you.


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