What are the key issues facing Bridget Phillipson as education secretary?

The new education secretary Bridget Phillipson faces an in-tray of challenges facing schools, colleges, universities and childcare providers.

Leaders in the education sector have called for greater detail on how the Labour Party plans to fulfil a series of its manifesto pledges – including the recruitment of thousands more teachers.

Here is a round-up of the key issues which the education secretary faces:

– Teacher recruitment and pay

Labour has promised to recruit an extra 6,500 “expert teachers” into shortage subjects, which it said will be paid for by imposing VAT on private schools.

But education unions have called for clarity on how Labour plans to attract thousands more teachers into the profession and retain them amid longstanding concerns about low salaries and high workloads.

General Election 2024
Sir Keir Starmer and Bridget Phillipson during a visit to Nursery Hill Primary School, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The Government has not yet set out its pay offer for September for teachers and school leaders in England due to the General Election.

Ms Phillipson soon will be expected to publish the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), and whether the Department for Education will accept them, to give schools clarity ahead of the next academic year.

School and college leaders will also be looking for commitments on funding to tackle squeezed budgets.

– Private schools

Labour has said it will “end the VAT exemption and business rates relief” for private schools to generate additional funding to be invested in state schools.

Currently, independent schools do not have to charge 20% VAT on their fees because there is an exemption for the supply of education.

But there are concerns that removing the VAT exemption could lead to an exodus of students into the state school system amid fee rises.

Some politicians have warned class sizes in state schools could rise, but Ms Phillipson has denied this.

It is unclear at this stage how many families are likely to leave private school education – and whether some schools will be forced to close – but parents will be looking closely for details on how and when the policy could come in.

– Childcare

Labour has pledged to open 3,000 new nurseries, and offer free breakfast clubs in every primary school, in a bid to improve provision for families.

The party has said it will repurpose empty or under-used school classrooms in England’s primary schools to help deliver an expansion of funded childcare.

As part of a staggered rollout of the childcare policy, introduced by the Conservative government, working parents of two-year-olds have been able to access 15 hours of funded childcare since April.

This is due to be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September this year, before the full rollout of 30 hours a week to all eligible families a year later.

Childcare leaders have called for “more action” to ensure the sector has enough early-years staff and funding to help with the expansion.

– Inspection

Ofsted has come under greater scrutiny in the past year following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry.

Mrs Perry took her own life after an Ofsted report downgraded her Caversham Primary School in Reading from its highest rating, “outstanding”, to its lowest rating, “inadequate”, over safeguarding concerns.

Ofsted inquiry
The Government remains committed to single-phrase Ofsted judgments despite calls for them to be scrapped following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry (Andrew Matthews/PA)

There have been repeated calls for single-phrase Ofsted judgments to be scrapped – and Labour has said it will replace these with a new report card system “telling parents clearly how schools are performing”.

But there are few details on how it will work, and it is unclear yet whether the reforms will satisfy the opponents of the current accountability system.

– Attendance and behaviour

There has been a rise in pupil absences since Covid-19 as education leaders have warned of a “fractured” social contract between families and schools.

More than a fifth (21.2%) of pupils in England were “persistently absent” in the 2022-23 school year, which means they missed 10% or more school sessions, compared to 10.9% in 2018-19.

Education leaders have also warned of a “behaviour crisis” in schools, and recent figures showed the number of school suspensions in England rose to more than 260,000 in spring 2023 – the largest on record for one term.

Ms Phillipson previously pledged to rebuild the “broken relationship” of trust between schools, families and government to tackle the challenge.

In its manifesto, Labour said it will introduce an annual review of safeguarding, attendance, and off-rolling – which is when pupils are unofficially removed from school rolls – but the sector is poised to hear more details.

– Send provision

The number of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) in England has been rising, but many families and schools are struggling to secure the provision and support they need.

Government data published in March found that about two in three special schools in England were at, or over, capacity in the last academic year.

Ms Phillipson has previously admitted that the challenge facing children with Send is “enormous” and it would take Labour time to “turn that around”.

In its manifesto, Labour has said it will take a “community-wide approach” to Send, improve inclusivity and expertise in mainstream schools and ensure special schools cater to those with the most complex needs.

–  Higher education

Universities face funding challenges as a result of frozen tuition fees for domestic students and visa restrictions on international students.

Sector leaders have called for maintenance grants to be reintroduced for the poorest university students in England amid cost pressures.

Labour’s manifesto acknowledged that the current higher education funding settlement “does not work” for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or students, but it lacks details on how things may change.