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

Shadow education secretary calls Gillian Keegan’s Ofsted comments ‘pathetic’

Bridget Phillipson wearing a pink coat
Bridget Phillipson said comments by Gillian Keegan were not befitting of someone in her position. Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA

Bridget Phillipson has accused Gillian Keegan of “demeaning” the office of education secretary by saying she would probably have punched Ofsted inspectors, describing Keegan’s remarks as “pathetic”.

Keegan told a headteacher’s conference on Friday that she would “have probably punched” rude Ofsted inspectors, based on an account she had heard during a recent school visit.

Phillipson, the Labour shadow secretary, said Keegan’s language was not befitting of a cabinet minister responsible for schools in England.

“This is sadly another example of the way in which Gillian Keegan has demeaned her office as secretary of state. And to do so in front of an audience of school leaders – many of whom are themselves Ofsted inspectors, and take that responsibility very seriously – is frankly pathetic,” Phillipson said.

“It’s not behaviour that befits a secretary of state for education. But sadly, we’ve seen many, many examples of such behaviour at a time when we need greater respect for education, where we need parents and government to work together to tackle some of these big challenges that we face, for example around attendance. These comments from the secretary of state do absolutely nothing to help that.”

Phillipson listed other examples, including Keegan’s “sweary outburst” about how well she had performed as education secretary, as well as suggesting that children like studying in portable classrooms.

“She should just get on and do the job and show the profession a bit of respect,” Phillipson suggested.

In her speech to the Association of School and College Leaders conference in Liverpool, Phillipson also attacked Keegan’s comments about the provision of special educational needs and disabilities (Send), with Keegan admitting that the system was “lose, lose, lose” despite the government “spending a fortune”.

Describing the challenges facing children and families with Send as “enormous”, Phillipson told the conference: “The next Labour government will have to do better.”

With the numbers of children in England issued with an education, health and care plan surging in recent years, schools and local authorities have found themselves unable to cope with the increase in demand for support and services, including special school places and therapy.

Speaking to journalists, Phillipson said: “After 14 years it will take us time to turn that around. What I’m determined to do, if we win the next election, is to have an early focus on reforming the system, and alongside that intervening far earlier in children’s lives.”

When asked for more detail about Labour’s plans, Phillipson said an incoming government would need “a much fuller understanding, if we win the election, as to the full extent of just how chaotic the system has become”.

She added: “I think families of children with Send have had enough of a system that isn’t delivering but have also had enough of promises from politicians that just haven’t been kept. And I’m not prepared to do that.”

Geoff Barton, the outgoing ASCL general secretary, warned that the government’s recent tax cuts spelled more funding difficulties for schools.

“If, for example, you cut taxes before a general election there is a price to pay further down the road. The quality of public services will suffer,” Barton said.

He said it was “unarguable” that schools in England had been underfunded for the past 14 years.

“On the current trajectory, with declining pupil numbers, with such low funding rates, there’s a very serious risk of schools – like local authorities – going bust, and in some cases, particularly small primary schools, actually having to close.

“Schools will have to further cut their curriculum options, there will be less pastoral and specialist support for those pupils with additional needs, simply because there won’t be enough money to do those things.”

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