Bridget Phillipson’s powerful journey from free school meals to Labour education chief


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Labour’s new Shadow Education Secretary opens up about her youth – and how, with a single mum in a council house, she was still luckier than many who grew up around her in Sunderland

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Bridget Phillipson knows very well the transformative power of education.

Labour ’s new Shadow Education Secretary went from a council house on a street in Washington, Sunderland, to Oxford University and then later Parliament, thanks in part to her amazing teachers.

Raised by a single mother and reliant on free school meals, Ms Phillipson says that life was tough at times.

But sitting in a meeting room in Portcullis House, she is full of optimism for how schools can improve children’s lives – if given the right support from the Government.

The Houghton and Sunderland South MP was handed the education brief by Keir Starmer in last month’s shadow cabinet reshuffle and relishes the new challenge.

“Education is my real passion, and I know that education has the power to transform lives,” she said in her first major interview since taking on the role.

“I was fortunate to be in a family where I was encouraged to do well in school”, she said
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Phil Harris)

Bridget Phillipson as a school pupil
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Bridget Phillipson)

“My education transformed my life. I was fortunate to be in a family where I was encouraged to do well in school.

“But you know those local schools, the teachers that taught me made an enormous difference to my life.

“I want to make that easier… still for too many children they are held back by virtue of family circumstance, background and that isn’t right.”

Ms Phillipson lived in a council house with her mum Clare, who helped to found domestic abuse charity Wearside Women in Need.

She said: “Life was pretty tough for many families, unemployment was high, crime was high and our schools were in a pretty desperate situation, really struggling to do their best with limited resources, with crumbling buildings, leaking roofs, not enough equipment to go around.

Ms Phillipson lived in a council house with her mum Clare, who helped to found a domestic abuse charity
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Bridget Phillipson)

“But you know those local schools I went to changed my life and I want that for every child.

“My mam brought me up on her own so life wasn’t always easy for us but I also reflect on the fact that many of the people that I was at school with had it far tougher. I’ve gone on to enjoy opportunities that they never had.”

Getting free school meals and later the Education Maintenance Allowance, which allowed her to stay on to do her A-Levels, made a big difference. The benefit was axed by the Tories in England in 2010.

“My mam would have made sure that I stayed on, it was really important to her,” she said.

“But for a lot of the people I went to school with, it was the difference between staying on or going at 16.”

Bridget Phillipson with Mirror interviewer Lizzy Buchan
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Phil Harris)

Her mum Clare was a Labour member and took her daughter to local meetings as a child, where she would play under the tables.

She joined the Labour Party at 15, as she said: “I looked around me and saw what happens when you have a Government that is not on your side.”

Ms Phillipson said: “I believe the power of Government can absolutely transform people’s lives yet we’ve got a Conservative government at the moment that are failing far too many children and families.

“And we’ve seen that with a complete failure to bring forward a proper plan around education recovery.”

Repeated lockdowns have caused havoc in schools, with a recent Ofsted report finding that almost every child in England has fallen behind during the pandemic.

Covid-enforced school closures have also laid bare the scale of inequalities, with some children struggling to learn in overcrowded houses without access to basic school supplies – let alone laptops.

Ms Phillipson said the Government’s plans to help children catch up have been inadequate
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Phil Harris)

“It’s just felt a lot of the time that education is an afterthought for the Government”
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Phil Harris)

Ms Phillipson said the Government’s plans to help children catch up have been inadequate and risked long-lasting impacts to their life chances.

The 38-year-old said: “The Government is delivering very little and I think that risks failing a generation of children.

“It will hold back our country in the long run as well because there’s lots of evidence that points to bigger impacts on the economy if we don’t make this investment now.”

She added: “We have seen schools in the most disadvantaged areas lose out more than schools in more affluent parts of the country and that’s completely wrong.

“But also it’s just felt a lot of the time that education is an afterthought for the Government.”

Labour has drawn up a Children’s Recovery Plan which promises small group tutoring for all children, and breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities for every pupil.

The party would also boost the pupil premium cash given to disadvantaged kids and extend free school meals over the holidays for the duration of the pandemic.

Teachers have been delivering food parcels and laptops, checking in with families, and going above and beyond throughout the Covid crisis, Ms Phillipson said.

“They wanted to do all that they could. But I know from speaking to leaders in schools that that has just become part of what they have to do as teachers, that they are being asked to do so much more because of the wider failings within our society, because of the increase we’ve seen in child poverty and because of the pressure that are on families.

“Schools are stepping in but they feel more stretched than ever.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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