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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Richard Adams Education editor

Pupils to get unique ID number linking service records under Labour

Bridget Phillipson visits St Matthews Primary School in Westminster
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, meets pupils during a visit to St Matthews Primary School in Westminster. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Children in England should be given a unique number to link their records held by schools, health visitors and councils, allowing governments to harness artificial intelligence and data-mining to improve standards, according to the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson.

In a keynote speech, Phillipson also praised the former Conservative education secretary Michael Gove for his high expectations, in contrast to the “merry-go-round” of ministers that have followed him.

Phillipson told an audience of education policymakers that current levels of pupil absences were “frankly terrifying”, and backed legislation for a register of home-schooled children as well as making data more available for those in school.

“Information about children isn’t shared in the way it needs to be. Today, too often, for too many children, that simply isn’t happening.

“We need, and Labour will bring, a simple single number – like the NHS number – that holds records together, and stops children’s needs falling through gaps within schools and between them, between all the services that wrap around them,” Phillipson said.

“The vast opportunities of the technology we have today, of artificial intelligence, of data-mining, of the automated search for patterns and learning, [offer] the promise of a country and a culture where the drive for high and rising standards is embedded in all that we do.

“All of that is useless if we don’t even collect and collate the information we have.”

Labour’s policy was announced by the party’s leader, Keir Starmer, in July, when Labour said it would pilot the use of a “children’s number” for use in education, social care and other support services.

A unique identifier has also been backed by Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, who has called for a “consistent child ID” number to allow data sharing and highlighting areas such as attendance, safeguarding and special education needs.

Phillipson confirmed proposals that Labour would use to tackle slipping attendance rates in England’s schools, ranging from free breakfasts in primary school to increasing mental health support in secondary schools.

She also accused the government of bungling its efforts to repair the life chances of children affected by the Covid-era lockdowns that saw schools closed to most pupils. “If I’m secretary of state for education, if and when such a national crisis comes again, school should be the last to close and the first to open,” she said.

While Phillipson did not mention the current education secretary, Gillian Keegan, by name, she did offer rare praise for Gove, who was education secretary for England from 2010 to 2014, and piloted a wave of divisive reforms including the creation of free schools and imposing more academic curricula.

“What Michael Gove brought to education, for all of our disagreements about many of the approaches that he took, was a sense of energy and drive and determination about education being central to national life,” Phillipson told an audience that included Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former Ofsted chief inspector appointed by Gove, and Lord Nash, who served under Gove as schools minister in the Lords.

“But what we’ve seen in recent years with this merry-go-round of education secretaries – I’ve had five in my time as shadow education secretary – is the lack of priority being given to education.

“I think it speaks to a wider truth about how far education has been deprioritised since Michael Gove’s time. I want to make sure, and Keir wants to make sure, that Labour will ensure education is front and centre of national life.”

Asked about attempts by private schools to avoid Labour’s policy of adding VAT to tuition fees by encouraging parents to pay years in advance, Phillipson said she would look at closing the loophole with provisions used by the government in 2010, when the VAT rate was raised from 17.5% to 20%.

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