Speech to Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Wes Streeting MP

Shadow Schools Minister

Thursday 11th March 2021


Thank you, chair, and a big thanks to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership for having me here this afternoon alongside a fantastic panel.

I genuinely don’t think there’s been enough recognition of the work that’s gone into keeping young people safe, well, and educated during the pandemic, so let me begin by saying a huge and heartfelt thank you to all of you joining us today for what you’ve done to support children and young people in the most extraordinary and challenging circumstances.


Covid-19 has presented the biggest challenge for our schools in peacetime.

While the whole country may have been locked in the same storm, we haven’t all been in the same boat.

Different infection rates, different restrictions and different rates of attendance have reinforced regional divides in terms of education – something that the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has consistently highlighted.

There have been particular challenges for pupils with some disabilities and other special educational needs.

And for too many children, home has not been a place where they’ve had the support, the space, the laptops or the internet connection they’ve needed to keep learning. So, 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 – and to make sure that they’re not written off simply as ‘generation covid’.

That’s why, as pupils returned to school this week following the latest period of lockdown, the focus of political debate is increasingly shifting towards ‘catch up’.

The exam question being: ‘what do we need to do to undo the damage of the last twelve months?’.


But I think the challenge we face is so much bigger than that.

Because for all the understandable concern about the impact of the pandemic on young people, 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 more than a decade ago.

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.

500 years.

Or as much time as has passed since Henry VIII was on the throne with the first of his six wives.

That’s why this week Keir Starmer and Kate Green launched our Bright Future Taskforce, to look, not only about how we can have an education and wellbeing-led recovery from covid-19, but most importantly at how we close the attainment gap that’s holding Britain back.

Despite all the effort that’s been made to raise standards and improve life chances, in too many cases demography is still destiny.

  • A child in Barnsley is nearly 3 times more likely to be in a class of more than 30 kids than a child in Barking.[1]
  • Pupils are five times more likely to go to a good or outstanding secondary school in North Herefordshire than in North Tyneside[2]
  • And young people are about 70% more likely to get 5 standard passes at GCSE in Grantham than in Grimsby.[3]

And in terms of getting to a top university from a state school:

  • You’re twice as likely if you’re from Merton rather than Middlesbrough. (5% vs 11%)
  • three times more likely if you live in Reading rather than in Redcar (7% vs 21%)
  • And four times more likely if you live in Buckinghamshire rather than Blackpool. (6% vs 24%).[4]

What’s striking, when comparing places like Barnsley and Barking or Hackney and Hartlepool, is the evident North-South divide even when comparing outcomes for pupils from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds.


It should go without saying that there are plenty of Northern success stories, too, and as an MP on the London-Essex border I regularly have to remind people that poverty and disadvantage exist within London and across the south of England.

But for all the talk of levelling up, there is still a postcode lottery in England today, which is disproportionately and detrimentally affecting kids across the North.

Place matters.

And eleven years into Conservative government there are signs that things are getting worse, particularly in the North of England.

The government’s tunnel vision approach to education – which often ignores the wider contextual factors at play – risks failing children in some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities.

Children in these areas are fighting a battle on multiple fronts: poor health, high crime, a lack of good quality jobs for when they leave school.

Many young people are trapped in a vicious cycle where their opportunities are limited simply because of where they were born.

I’ve been particularly struck by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s challenge to policy-makers to focus on long-term disadvantage, defined as those who’ve spent at least 80 per cent of their school career on free school meals, as I did, as well as those from backgrounds that that are likely to have a high impact on their life chances.

Forgive me if you heard this yesterday afternoon, but it bears repeating.

  • Firstly, the number of schools with a high proportion of long-term disadvantaged students increased by 16 per cent in just one year
  • Secondly, outcomes for pupils in these schools were worse than average for Pupil Premium students in the vast majority of cases and this picture is worsening
  • And thirdly, that long-term disadvantage is disproportionately concentrated in the North West, North East, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber – both in terms of schools with a high proportion of pupils experiencing long-term disadvantage, as well as actual numbers of those pupils.

In fact, just over 10 per cent of all pupils in the North East fall into the long-term disadvantage high impact category – the highest in the country and almost double the national average.

Bear in mind this was before the pandemic struck.

Worst of all, the Government isn’t paying attention to this.

Last week, Jonathan Slater, the former Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education from 2016 until last year, told the Foundation for Education Development’s National Education Summit that the Government has lost its focus on closing the attainment gap:

“I don’t think there was anything like the focus inside the department on that question post-2015. I don’t think it was the main focus anymore, and I think it’s probably not a coincidence that the attainment gap stopped falling.”

When I heard this, my jaw hit the floor.

This is mission critical.

I simply don’t understand how this could not be a priority for ministers and senior civil servants in the Department for Education every single day.

He attributed this lack of attention on the attainment gap to the competing focus on the Government’s priority of completing the roll out of the academies programme.

Structures before standards.

It should be the other way around: structures should be built to drive standards.

If the Government’s reform agenda isn’t closing the attainment gap, they need a new reform agenda.

The consequence is more children experiencing deeper disadvantage and poorer life chances.

Disproportionately concentrated in the North of England.

Those in power settling for less for other people’s children in a way that they never would for their own.

This isn’t levelling up.

It’s levelling down the prospects for kids across the North and the communities they’re growing up in.

Because education isn’t just an engine for individual life chances, it’s an engine for Britain’s economic growth – and absolutely vital to success of every region in every nation of the UK.

It is a waste of talent and potential that we simply cannot afford.

Our national challenge – and Labour’s mission – is to rewrite the story of educational disadvantage in Britain.

To open minds, build ambition and give every child from every part of our country access to the world of opportunities that the 21st century offers them.

So, how do we do that?


Firstly, let’s recognise that kids don’t leave their problems at the school gate when they arrive in the morning and so much of what happens within school is determined by what’s going on at home.

It is no coincidence that progress to close the attainment gap has stalled as child poverty has risen.

They are inextricably linked.

We won’t have a successful strategy for improving education 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.

This is a national scandal.

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.

Even when they’re not in temporary accommodation procured by the local authority, lots of families are living in poor quality and insecure private rented accommodation and are forced to move regularly.

The result is kids pushed from pillar to post from one place to the next, too often from one school to the next – living in places where they don’t have their own space to study or to play, with serious consequences for their education and wellbeing.

As Anne Longfield set out in her final speech as Children’s Commissioner just a few weeks ago, the same family could be affected by cuts to early years provision, health visiting and social security, which has been cut to such an extent that we have a social insecurity system in this country.

As we piled pressure on the Government again and again to get every child online during lockdown with laptops and internet dongles, I couldn’t help but worry about the children who wouldn’t be able to use them when the electricity meter ran out – an experience I remember all too well from my own childhood.

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.

Choices matter.

The last Labour Government’s choices lifted more than two million children out of poverty.

The present Government’s choices are pushing children into poverty.

If we want schools to get the very best out of our children, we need to attack the poverty that holds them back.


Secondly, we need a place-based approach to tackling educational disadvantage in those communities where outcomes still fall well short of those we would expect or accept for our own children.

Despite the broader progress that we’ve seen, it hasn’t been the case that a rising tide has lifted all ships.

Sending in Ofsted and changing the provider every few years isn’t working either.

Opportunity Areas are the Government’s answer to this challenge and, while there are some fantastic people involved in them, they’re simply not up to the scale of the challenge.

Their focus and funding is too short-term and there are far more than 12 areas in need.

But, fundamentally, 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.

We’ve got to create the conditions in local communities where people can thrive.

Where they don’t have to leave their hometown for better job opportunities.

Where there are decent homes, good public transport connections, reliable digital infrastructure, high quality public services, and a great culture and leisure offer.

All underpinned by a strong local economy.

If the Government was talking in those terms, I’d take them seriously.

Instead, the Government has abandoned its industrial strategy and adopted a bizarre approach to public investment that sees significant sums of public money from the Towns Fund poured into the Chancellor’s affluent Richmond constituency, while places like Barnsley and Sheffield, that have far greater levels of need, have been overlooked for investment.

We saw what a difference the London Challenge made in our capital city.

It turned London’s schools from a byword for educational failure into a national success story.

We need that same relentless focus on school improvement, but we also need to understand that the success of the London Challenge took place against the backdrop of rising economic prosperity and living standards across the city.

We need a much more ambitious and targeted place-based agenda that – yes – is about education and skills, but is also about employment, housing, transport, public service reform and infrastructure investment.


Finally, while there’s a huge amount I could say about the factors that influence education outcomes within the school gates, I will focus on the most precious resource we have within our schools: 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.

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

We should be trying to attract the very best, experienced, teachers, support staff and school leaders into schools serving the most disadvantaged communities and we should also be working to recruit and develop home grown talent within those communities, something that I know Teach First is increasingly thinking about.

And because we know that strong, expert leadership makes such a difference, developing emerging leaders and supporting existing school leaders should be a priority, too.

So amidst all the talk of longer school days and shorter school holidays, the Government hasn’t been talking about the thing that matters most: teaching.

In fact, over the course of the last decade class sizes have risen.

And even the National Tutoring Programme and academic mentors, when fully rolled out, will still reach barely half of all kids on free school meals, let alone the many more that would benefit from additional support.


The last decade has been challenging for schools facing real term budget cuts, particularly those serving the most disadvantaged communities.

We need a credible plan for the long-term, sustained investment that our schools and communities need to undo the damage caused by a decade of cuts and once again put great education at the heart of Britain’s future.

But the challenge in education policy isn’t just about funding, it’s about focus.

We need a Government that’s once again focused on closing the attainment gap and tackling educational disadvantage.

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.

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?

There’s a bright future to be built for our kids, for our communities and for our country.

It’s up to all of us to have the ambition and the will to build it.

Thank you.


[1] (18% vs 6.6%) Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2020

[2] 20.5% vs 100%. Source: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/constituency-data-educational-attainment/

[3] (73% vs 43%). Source: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/constituency-data-educational-attainment/

[4] Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/widening-participation-in-higher-education-2019

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