Lucy's speech at the Education Reform Summit North


Speaking at the Education Foundation Education Reform Summit North today in Sheffield Lucy talked about the challenges facing our schools system. You can read her speech below.





Thank you for inviting me to speak today at the first Education Reform Summit in the North. As a proud northerner - a comprehensively educated one - it’s great to be here today – even if we are on the wrong side of the Pennines…

As you can see from my late arrival this morning the Northern Powerhouse still has a long way to go in terms of reliable trans-pennine connectivity…

I wanted to talk to you today about some of the broad challenges facing education and to open up a conversation about how some of these might be tackled – recognising how far we’ve come and the excellence in so many of our schools. 

Four and a half years away from the next election, one thing we have in opposition, is time. Time to reflect, time to talk and listen, time to learn, time to plan. Of course, in the meantime, it’s also my job to hold the government to account and to highlight where they are going wrong.

Importance of Education to Labour

I’m passionate about this job; the second best job in politics after actually being Education Secretary. I've got three kids, one in secondary school, one in primary and one in nursery. All good local state schools. If I’d started earlier I might even have FE covered too.

I come from a family of teachers – my mum was a head and is an active school governor now; my aunties and uncles, grandparents and others were all heads, teachers or still are. So when people say they hope I’m in touch with the profession I can honestly say that I get lobbied in and out of work.

For me, and for the Labour Party, education is a vital issue and something we are passionate about. There is no better route out of poverty; no better way to increase aspiration and social mobility; no better way to secure prosperity and build the kind of productive, high wage, cutting edge economy we want to build.

Education is the cornerstone of our economic success and the foundation for an engaged, active society.

We have seen a significant improvement in our schools system in the last twenty years both in terms of standards in the classroom, the quality of teachers and the physical and learning environment in many schools.  

I went to school in the 1980s and today we are a far cry from those days, when too many were failed. I had great teachers. I was one of the lucky ones, but too many of my peers did not do as well as they could, or should, because the system as a whole was too hit and miss.

The robust accountability and monitoring regime we introduced means fewer children are falling through the net and standards have improved, although there is still some way to go to achieve excellence everywhere.  

Warning signs

However, whilst there is much to celebrate, and outstanding work going on in all parts of the country, there are still stubborn pockets of underachievement. What’s more, there are danger signs which I believe are as a result of the government taking the system in the wrong direction and making bad choices.

News that the attainment gap is now wider than in 2010 is deeply worrying. Teacher shortages are a warning sign of deeper issues. The constant flux, coupled with an increasingly tight framework is, undoubtedly in my view, going to impact on results, as they are currently measured and perceived. And the failure of school place planning highlights the unsustainable nature and flaws within the free market and fractured schools system. 

Many Heads warn about a growing tension between what is best for their school, in terms of how they are held accountable, assessed and graded as a whole, and what is best for an individual child and their development, progress and future success. Creating a system that sets kids up to fail is not in anyone’s interests. We must have a rigorous system in place which stretches and challenges all pupils whilst supporting them to achieve the best they can. A system that rewards schools for narrowing the gap, and raising attainment across the board – is what we should be working towards. 

Chopping and changing

Over the past five years barely a week has gone by without another Government review of another examination or national curriculum subject or the goal posts changing. We’ve had outcry followed by swift u-turn, revised subject content, new exam specifications, the biggest revolution in GCSEs for a generation, EBacc, new A-levels, Progress Eight, new key stage 2 assessments-still unclear, not to mention the Government’s withdrawal of the levels assessment system without any regard to what would replace them.

This constant upheaval has a significant impact. Every time, schools must respond and adapt, tearing up schemes of work that have suddenly become out-of-date, designing lesson plans to reflect the new content, and buying in new text books and resources to suit the new content.

There is a very genuine workload issue going on in our schools that is affecting morale in the profession and the ability of many teachers to always be at their most effective for our children’s education.

If we are to ensure that no pupil is left behind it is vital that parents know exactly how their child is doing at school and how they can support them to improve.

Sadly, due to the confusion and chaos surrounding results and assessments year on year under this Government, parents’ ability to know what’s going on and understand their child’s progress is diminishing.

It’s also not entirely clear what the evidence is that supports many of these changes. Let alone that there are clear strategies for embedding and reviewing their impact. We urgently need some stability in the system and for the government to be held to account for their decisions and their consequences. 

Teacher shortages crisis

All of these issues create a toxic mix and are a significant factor in why we are seeing an unprecedented exodus of teachers from the profession. The highest number of teachers ever left in the last year. Losing any good teacher from a school is a body blow and schools are losing too many great teachers.

Recruitment is becoming a much bigger issue too. Not only is it the great teachers that we’re losing; it’s the failure to recruit enough new teachers into the profession to fill the gaps.

Year on year the government has failed to recruit enough teachers, particularly in STEM subjects, English and modern foreign languages.

You can’t solve a problem you’re blind to. Ministers first and foremost need to get their heads out of the sand and be realistic about the challenge facing schools.

There is a teacher supply crisis and the government seem to be the last people to admit this. It’s time for them to look again at their botched recruitment process and renew efforts to bear down on teacher workload.

School places crisis

The government is also failing on another acute and real problem; school place planning.

The government’s free school programme and free market approach to creating new places is wholly inadequate.

In a time of rapid rise in demand for places, particularly in certain areas, crossing ones fingers and hoping a parent group or charity will come along in the right place to create thousands of new places is at best wishful thinking, at worst a failure of duty.

Concerns by Tory MPs, the Local Government Association and others underline this point. The Tories’ market approach on school places has failed and that’s why we’re seeing even Tory MPs standing up in the House of Commons calling for more joined up strategic action to tackle the lack of places.

Under Labour, local authorities will be given the powers and resources able to ensure sufficient places.

Local accountability

I’m also clear too that managing thousands of schools from Whitehall is wrong-headed and will lead to failings.

Academisation in and of itself is not a silver bullet for school improvement – it is one of a number of measures that can work which are underscored by an ethos of collaboration and partnership working. I’m proud of Labour’s sponsored academy programme which transformed a small number of failing schools but the atomisation of the system is not the answer. 

Labour will ensure there is local oversight and accountability of all schools, regardless of type so local communities can work together to tackle underperformance and drive up standards as well as ensuring a strategic approach to fair admissions, school place planning, in year admissions, supporting vulnerable children with SEND and other priorities.

This is not about going back to an era when poor performing local education authorities failed children and when LEA’s had a monopoly over schools and their services. Far from it. Let’s keep the freedoms schools now enjoy, the freedoms that can drive up standards and bring innovation and new partnerships. But we also need to ensure strong local oversight and accountability of all schools so that local government has the ability and capacity to intervene, raise concerns, ensure sufficient places and bring all schools into the community and collaborate.

Further Education

I’m not going to say much today because my focus is on schools but further education 14-19 is one of my priorities and there is much to learn from the Manchester College model being discussed earlier about better connectivity between supply and demand and the needs of the economy in this area.

Ministerial diktat on the curriculum

Today I want to open up a conversation about how we can guarantee that future curriculums are fit for purpose. Young people have the right to a programme of study that prepares them for the modern world, with a strong connection to the needs of the economy. At the moment, this just isn’t happening.

Instead, under the Tories we’ve seen parts of the curriculum personally drafted by the Education Secretary and then circulated for sign-off amongst Cabinet Ministers, each making the case for their own pet project to be included. In the current system, not only can the Education Secretary prescribe exactly what goes on in classrooms on a whim, but so can the Secretary of State for Defence, for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Home Secretary.

Ministerial diktat on the curriculum has gone too far and this approach is failing to meet the needs of our young people and our economy. It’s no wonder then that we now have the situation where 69 per-cent of businesses and two–thirds of parents do not feel the education system prepares their children for work.

In future, I want to see a broader-based process for curriculum development that links better to the needs of business, society and the knowledge and skills that we need for a strong economy.

Of course, it is right that politicians as elected representatives and the government of the day have a view on the core subjects that all young people are entitled to and use evidence from both home and abroad to ensure there is a high quality, broad and balanced framework of standards for each subject.

But the detail of what happens in individual lessons should not be controlled in Whitehall. It should be for all schools to develop their curriculums that put this framework into practice in the classroom and make it meaningful for every young person. We should never allow the situation to arise again where Ministers are personally writing individual programmes of study for schools or prescribing the specific texts young people should study.


I want Labour’s mission to be focused on giving teachers the tools they need to stretch and challenge the next generation getting the best out of them, and I want us to focus relentlessly on raising standards in all our schools and ensuring that there are enough good school places for all pupils in a local school of parents choosing. Central to this will be a strong focus on narrowing the attainment gap and fostering collaboration and strong partnership working to drive improvements.

Over the coming years I want to work with you, with parents, and experts to develop the twenty-first-century education our country needs.

The job you do day in day out is so important for the future success of our country and for the young people you lead.

Let’s work together as we answer some of the challenges I’ve outlined so that we can be the envy of the world when it comes to education attainment and success.  

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