As anyone that follows me any sort of social media/anyone that would listen to me last week knows, I attended the Labour Leadership hustings on Sunday. I felt how most people probably feel waiting to see their favourite band: “I can’t believe we’re going to be in the same room as them!” “It’ll be so strange having followed them all these years to see them in the flesh” “Should I wear my “Hell Yes” t-shirt or is that too last Labour Leader?” I found the whole process fascinating and what surprised me was how my perceptions changed having watched them in the flesh. Yvette Cooper is far more impressive, Liz Kendall far less, whilst Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn were pretty much what I expected. At the end of it all I was still hugely undecided about how I will cast my vote.
All four leaders seemed to agree that education needs to, once again, be at the forefront of the Labour agenda. It was barely mentioned in the 2015 campaign and given the damage Gove has done to the education system there is a lot of work to do. So I started thinking: what would I want to hear the future Labour Party leader say?
1) Boost teacher morale
This has to happen quickly and it applies to all public sector workers who have been made enemy of the state over the last few years. Nurses, doctors, social workers, midwives and teachers criticised on an almost daily basis in the media. The constant drip, drip narrative of “public sector workers are lazy“, “public sector workers are incompetent” needs to stop.
2) A qualified teacher in every classroom
Quite a simple one. Only Qualified Teachers are allowed to have a class. Allowing unqualified teachers to teach is damaging for children’s education and hugely undermining of trained, skilled professionals. I wouldn’t want an unqualified doctor performing an operation neither would I want an unqualified lawyer representing me in court. By allowing unqualified teachers to teach it suggests teaching requires no specialist training and anyone can do it.
3) Build community schools not free schools
I’m not sure what I find more distasteful: chains of soulless academies run by Whitehall that can change teacher’s pay and conditions at a drop of a hat or schools set up by groups of parents, religious fanatics, business owners and Katie Price funded by the tax-payer. These schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum and can select their pupils which risks creating a “sink school” situation and further increases social segregation. The academy scheme was started by Labour to try and improve failing schools however has it actually worked? Other than the fact that academies can be more selective at the pupils they take on there is little evidence that suggests academy status actually improves schools. Rather than spending their budget on free schools and academies if the Government focused on building more community schools that served the children of the local community we could begin to address the school places crisis. At the moment state schools are being asked to take on extra classes in porter-cabins to try and place all these children without schools. This is a temporary solution to an ever-increasing problem. The Labour party established the Building Schools for the Future scheme and Primary Capital Programme in 2006 to prepare for the number of places that would be needed in 2011. Michael Gove famously scrapped both of these schemes in 2010.
4) Address the teacher recruitment and retention problem
Well step one is acknowledge there is a teacher recruitment and retention problem. There is a 7% shortfall expected for this September, the third in a row. We need to make teaching the job that graduates want to go for. This doesn’t mean necessarily offering more money. If teachers were given the same level of respect as lawyers or bankers I think that alone would attract people to the profession. For those that have chosen teaching we need to work hard to keep them Currently 4 out of 10 teachers leave within their first year. Either the training is not equipping them with the skills they need or the ever increasing demands made of teachers are making the job unbearable. At the moment, unless you decide to go into leadership you are fairly capped as to the amount you can earn. I know that the Advanced Skills Teachers role was meant for teachers that wanted to stay as class teachers and would be given the career development and financial incentive to do so.
5) Address workload
Closely linked to teacher retention the issue of workload. I’d like to start with a disclaimer: I know teaching will always be a difficult job and teachers will always be required to work outside their contracted hours. It’s the time spent on tasks that has no impact on children’s education I resent. The time spent evidencing what I do in class and updating endless spreadsheets. The endless focus on data without acknowledging we are dealing with children not numbers. It’s generally accepted by teachers entering the profession that they are giving up any hope of a work-life balance. When first started teaching I think the adrenaline and the novelty of having my own class meant I didn’t notice I was working a 60 hour week and half of my evenings and weekends. I loved it and loved my class and would happily spend hours working. I remember going to the cinema with the same friend twice in a four month period and both times I fell asleep in the first half an hour of the film. My friends and family generally accept to get any decent time with me they need to wait until the holidays. I get a strange sort of buzz from working like this but it’s wearing off. The DFE workload survey found teacher’s workload increased by 9 hours a week between 2010 and 2013. Forget work-life balance or teacher’s mental health. Children need and deserve passionate, enthusiastic teachers with the energy to go the extra mile for them. At the moment most of the teachers I know are struggling to just get through the day.
6) Address child poverty
You can redefine it however you want but child poverty 3.5 million children live in poverty. All research shows the direct link between child poverty and low educational achievement. Children living in poverty start school 19 months behind developmentally. A study done in America found that children from more affluent backgrounds are exposed to 30 MILLION more words than children growing up on benefits. Closer to home, a study carried out by Bristol University with a sample of 12, 644 5 year-olds found children from the poorest 20% of homes had an average developmental age of about 4 and a half. In stark contrast children from the wealthiest 20% of homes had an average developmental age of 5 years and eight months approximately 15 months ahead of the poorest children. As the gap between rich and poor widens state funding is cut so schools have fewer resources to address this gap. As state services are cut schools are left to pick up the pieces with ever decreasing resources. I know of schools that take pupils to the doctor and the dentist to teaching them how to use the toilet. Investing in children’s formative years is essential. Invest in the state support, health visitors, midwives, social workers. Oh and by address child poverty I don’t mean redefine it. With the cuts to tax credits, and child benefit caps I sadly don’t see how we’re going to help children out of poverty under this government,
These are, in my opinion, some of the top priorities and yet I haven’t begun to address the curriculum, changes to testing and the ever changing goal posts and Ofsted criteria. Ultimately I believe we need an education system we can feel proud of and a Government that treats public sector workers with the respect they deserve.