For a state school girl from Watford, who has been an MP for just 5 years – I recognise some people might think it’s audacious to suggest that I might lead our party and ask the country to elect me as our Prime Minister.
I’m here because I want the work we’ve done together here in Leicester to be a model for Britain’s future.
To achieve this, you work with others – like the Square Mile project that we’ve worked on together.
We’ve brought together DMU students with local schools and parents to mentor and inspire talented kids – many of whom would never even dream that they might be good enough to study at University let alone become a designer, doctor, lawyer, accountant, photographer or actor.
And we’ve done it because we know education opens doors that would otherwise remain tightly shut and because for far too many of our fellow citizens the chance to fulfill their potential and to dare to dream is just a distant illusion
I’m standing here today with an extraordinary request – to elect me as the leader of our party – not because my background is extraordinary.
Quite the opposite. My parents are like many across Britain. Neither on the breadline, nor loaded, they were determined to give their daughter all that any of us can ask from our parents: love, security, ambition and hope.
And alongside that unconditional love, my parents demanded that I make the best of myself, that I recognise the opportunities that education offered and the doors it could open. Yet too few get that chance in life.
And I meet children here in Leicester, and look into their eyes and talk to them about their futures and know that the barriers that stand in their way are so high – and their capacity to scale them, with the hand that life has dealt them, is so small.
I know how difficult the future is for them in a world that is so unforgiving of those without skills. And I know that all of us who are responsible for their education are betraying their futures with our failure. As Labour people, we understand the complex problems that face children and families in some of our most deprived communities.
Our world is changing faster than ever before. New technologies develop, markets emerge, and companies and jobs change in what seems like the blink of an eye. When we were in Government, we were determined to seize the opportunities these changes bring – and rightly so.
But showing leadership on this issue is about more than empathy, more than understanding, necessary though this is. Our response to global change should not be grievance and anger. That leads nowhere and does not create a single new opportunity. We must be the champions of a chance not a grievance. And we mustn’t shy away from change but make it our mission to equip people with the skills, knowledge, character and confidence to make the most of it whatever their background.
This starts with the very earliest years of a life. I know, from when I was Director of the Maternity Alliance charity before I became an MP, that inequality shapes children’s futures before their lives have begun.
Children growing up in professional homes hear three times as many words as children in the most disadvantaged homes. The amount parents read to their children and the number of books at home makes a huge difference here. The quality of the relationship between parents and their babies also shapes children’s social and emotional development – their self-esteem and self-confidence – and their ability to build relationships with others.
These kinds of skills can affect how well children do at school and in the world of work, particularly in today’s service-driven economy
Children in this city can’t afford to play catch up for the rest of their lives, and our country can’t afford to pay the consequences either, not only in terms of higher unemployment rates and benefits but lost talent and skills. There’s nothing economically credible about ending up paying far more for problems that could have been prevented. And having a genuine long-term economic plan means prioritising the early years.
It means midwives and health visitors helping parents understand the importance of reading, talking to and playing with their babies as well as their good health. It means drawing on the wealth of experience that many voluntary organisations have of working with parents in the most disadvantaged areas. It means transforming the status and quality of the entire early years workforce, and ensuring everyone with a responsibility for children – parents as well as professionals – really understands the importance of the early years.
Labour made a huge difference to children’s early years when we were in Government through Sure Start – one of our proudest achievements, which the Tories have shamefully neglected and undermined. But Sure Start Children’s Centres need to change to ensure an even more radical shift towards early intervention, tackle the root causes of problems, and give families the tools they need to give their children the best start in life, especially when resources are tight.
I’ve said that re-establishing our reputation for economic credibility is a fundamental part of Labour being seen as fit to govern our country again. But believe me there is no economic credibility for our country if we don’t skill up our workforce in the 21st century
And that’s not just about what children learn in traditional lessons but about how we open minds and broaden horizons in schools.
One of the best days I’ve had since I became an MP was in Parks Primary in my constituency. The Head, Mrs Evans, and her team had brought people with all different types of jobs and careers into the school to talk to the children about the amazing opportunities that are out there if they work hard and do well at school. They call it ‘Aspirations week’. In Westminster, talking about aspiration can sound hollow. At Parks Primary, ‘aspiration’ really means something.
Mrs Evans and her teachers go the extra mile to contact everyone they knew with an interesting job to inspire their pupils. They know that if they don’t show all their kids what education made possible, the same way some parents do, they might get left behind.
Making sure children from all backgrounds learn about opportunities that are usually available to a few, is an inspiring vision of what our schools can be. That means ensuring there is strong leadership and great teachers, particularly in the most deprived areas.
It means being as demanding about maximising the potential of the A grade student who is taking their exams early, as the child who might just be able to get the grades they need to earn an apprenticeship if they give it their all. It means stretching and supporting children with special educational needs, autism and physical and learning disabilities – and offering fair access to the curriculum to children with dyslexia and children who are excluded who must never be forgotten.
It means asking even more of our teachers, but never forgetting the amazing contribution so many of them make – and never denigrating them for a cheap headline, as David Cameron shamefully allowed Michael Gove to do for four years.
And we don’t have to wait to make that start. Usually oppositions can only criticise, not act.
But this is an issue we in the Labour party can do something about right now. I want to see businesses, charities, universities, volunteers and parents play a bigger role in helping to raise standards and achievement.
I want every Labour Council to lead a revolution in opening horizons for pupils and making better educational chances everyone’s business. The Labour party I lead won’t use opposition as an excuse for inaction but as a spur to find new ways to improve the lives of the people we seek to serve.
So as Labour leader, I will launch an “Inspiring the future” project, bringing together businesses, voluntary and community activists and union members, to encourage them go into state schools and show how education can transform children’s lives.
It will be a programme independent of our party, and open to all, but run according to our values – that by the strength of our common endeavour we can achieve much more than we achieve alone. As Leader, I’ll volunteer too, going to state schools across England, bringing with me successful people from all backgrounds to tell children how education helped us, and how it can help them too.
All too often the Labour Party is about delivering leaflets, knocking on doors and attending meetings. But we can be so much more than that. We may not be in power nationally, but we do have the power to show people that our politics can transform their lives. The party I lead will also work to rebuild and renew our communities through the strength of our common endeavour.
I’ll never forget the debt that I owe my parents, the teachers who guided me, and university lecturers who inspired me.
I also know that I owe so much to the opportunities Labour governments created in the decades before I was born – from the National Health Service which took care of my family, to the state school that taught me success was about what was in your head not in your wallet.
So many of the opportunities I’ve enjoyed and the chances I’ve been able to take, I owe to our party and to the brilliant and visionary people who have gone before me. They understood that fulfilling your potential should never be dependent on where you’re born, what your parents did, your gender, sexuality or the colour of skin.
We must end the scourge of illiteracy and innumeracy, broaden the horizons of our young people and give everyone a better chance in life. Under my leadership, Labour will do just that.
So my approach to building a fairer Britain – and reducing the crippling inequality that shames our nation and holds it back – will be rooted in transforming the life chances of all our children; by backing our teachers and parents but challenging them too. And our economic credibility will be based on having a plan that starts before children are born and follows them through the ups and downs of their lives.
And it will be based on a simple truth – that a Labour Party that isn’t talking about education and social mobility has forgotten what it exists for.