Katy Balls Katy Balls

Labour plan to find lockdown’s ‘ghost children’ will rile the Tories

Bridget Phillipson spent the morning setting out what she will prioritise in the Department for Education if Labour wins the election. The shadow education secretary parked her party’s tanks on the Tories’ lawn by giving a speech at the Centre for Social Justice, the thinktank co-founded by Iain Duncan Smith. She follows the shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, who also delivered a keynote speech on out-of-work benefits at the CSJ. Phillipson kicked off her address by praising Michael Gove for championing high expectations and standards during his time in the education brief – something that, she said, was no longer the case.

Labour MPs giving speeches at the CSJ will rile the Tories. But the bigger headache for Rishi Sunak is the issue Phillipson has chosen to champion: the ‘ghost children’ created by lockdown. She spoke first about the problems children had suffered in the classroom since the pandemic but then moved on to the even bigger issue – the children who are not there at all.

The problem for the Tories is that the register isn’t a particularly new idea

‘However excellent our teachers, however well-evidenced their approaches, however thoughtful our school leaders, they can’t teach children who aren’t there,’ she said. ‘We have a crisis of attendance in our schools and today that is the single biggest barrier to success for our children.’

She mentioned a school in Hastings where more than 47 per cent of the children were persistently absent in 2021/2022. It’s now well established that one of the consequences of lockdown, which saw children spend months out of the classroom, is the historically high levels of absence that have followed since in-class teaching returned. In 2019, just over 60,000 pupils were defined as ‘severely absent’.

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