Ed Dorrell, The Independent
Some politicians get into it for the kicks. Some get into it for the ego. Some get into it because they love the sound of their own voice. Some get into it for their principles. Some get into it because they “think they’ll be good at it” (here’s to you, the badly mistaken David Cameron).
Some — not all — really want to bring about big, lasting transformation in an area of public life. They are the reformers and the builders. Of course, ego plays a part in their drive, but they also believe that with the right focus, elected politicians can change the country for the better.
This ambition is not uncommon in the Commons. But what is rare is when it’s combined with the necessary determination and intellect. All too few have these attributes — combined with the luck — to be able to deliver big and bold reforms.
In the last decade plus of Conservative government, who fits that description? Perhaps only Michael Gove when he was education secretary. You might not have liked his reforms, but it’s hard to argue they weren’t profound. What about in the Blair/Brown era? A few more cabinet ministers might have a claim, but David Blunkett’s changes to schools and teachers’ practice in the late 1990s are right up there for their huge impact.
Under Thatcher, one of the most successful reformers was — you guessed it — her most notorious education secretary, Ken Baker, who ushered in both the National Curriculum and Ofsted. Massive change, both. Can you see a pattern developing? So, what about the Labour administration that — God willing — will march into Whitehall in 2024? There is reason to be optimistic. There are signs that the current shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, might become the latest in the short list of genuine reformers: the doers who make once-in-a-generation change happen.
What makes me think this? Because it is becoming clear that she has landed on an area of public life that is ripe for change, one that needs government intervention and that can be transformative for millions of ordinary people. Namely, childcare.
Phillipson’s speech at the Labour conference last week was not widely reported. It contained strong language about the schools system, and it did contain one striking bit of news — that a Labour government would fund universal access to breakfast clubs for all primary pupils — but otherwise, it wasn’t frontpage stuff. To a casual observer it wasn’t exactly Atlee in 1945.However, interrogate that announcement a little and it does reveal an interesting truth: Phillipson and the wider Labour frontbench (especially shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves) are taking the issue of childcare and wraparound care for pre-teens seriously. Breakfast clubs were one of only a few spending commitments to be officially announced in Liverpool (Starmer and his team are determined to present themselves as the opposite of profligate).
The point is this: the breakfast club announcement is almost certainly the tip of the childcare iceberg. Where her predecessors — both red and blue — delivered radical change in the education system, Phillipson will likely steer clear of big structural reform in schools themselves, and instead has her sights on transforming the lives of young people both before they get to reception and also around the edges, in breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, once they have arrived. This is stuff that has been missing from our national education conversation for too long and where there’s most room for improvement. Professionalising childcare and making it affordable would have a vast impact on the life chances of young people before they even get to the classroom — while delivering universal access to fantastic extra-curricular opportunities after school would do the same.
If successful, both also have potential dividends for national productivity — and, yes, growth! — because they would allow more parents (in truth, mainly mums) to advance their careers in a way currently hamstrung by our eye-wateringly expensive childcare system.
There is, however, a caveat. While this stuff might sound simple, it’s isn’t. There a reason successive education secretaries have given it the swerve: many people think reform can’t be done. Phillipson has the ambition to buck this trend. Modern politics is not known for its patience, but this particular problem demands it. Let’s hope Phillipson is given both time and support. This is a chance for something really important. And that doesn’t happen very often.
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