Some reflections on the current situation in English education, from a recently retired local teacher and former teaching union leader.
As Keir Starmer sets about rebuilding our shattered fortunes, let me suggest that a key component must be root and branch changes to how state education functions at every level. Education is an area in which I should be able to make some valid observations, after a career in local schools and colleges stretching back over almost 4 decades, with 3 children going through the system, and having recently worked as an examiner, lecturer and teaching union officer.
We must become, once again, the party for state education and expose the deceptions of the Conservative Party, which does not fundamentally believe in it, and which has never delivered on any progressive agenda for education.
When we consider two of the most spectacular failings in government policy over this past summer of discontent, they reveal some enduring truths about Tory views. Take the exam results fiasco, in which my 18 year old daughter was caught up. Clearly, Gavin Williamson is a minister way out of his depth, a position he shares with almost all of a cabinet who have been propelled to power largely on the back of a mendacious Brexit agenda, without any proper regard for their abilities and experience.
Even so, his failure to appreciate the consequences of allowing the results to be based on data and an algorithm, that would massively discriminate in favour of those already socially advantaged, reveals both a political ideology grounded in elitism, and his own incompetence. We can take some solace that such was the outcry at the injustice of this, the government had to make one of their frequent U turns and base results on the assessment of those who know students best – their teachers.
Now, we are in the midst of an unfolding, and sadly entirely predictable situation in regards to schooling during a pandemic. Many local heads are now having to send home entire year groups, worse is likely to follow. Ironically, a government that believe in testing pupils and schools at every turn for academic purposes, can not come close to delivering the virus tests that are absolutely essential if schools are to continue to operate.
The education unions are repeatedly pointing out the lack of support from government with the huge demands of providing safe learning environments for pupils and staff. We frequently get meaningless rhetoric from Johnson and Williamson, when what is required is careful and structured help to every school at such a demanding time.
Fundamentally, we have a party in power which does not care about state education It realises the need to spout hollow promises about `levelling up` whilst most independent studies show entirely the opposite is happening, with the most disadvantaged areas receiving the least funding per pupil.
We should not underestimate the capacity of this government to pull the wool over people’s eyes, like most populist governments it is skilled in this at least; whether it be on Brexit, Covid,or schools.
We have to take on this Conservative government with a progressive agenda that people can understand and support. Looking back on my teaching career that began in the dark days of Thatcher in 1982, it seems clear to me that only under the Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 was education policy and delivery, moving in the right direction. Commendable initiatives in the pursuit of social justice, such as Educational Maintenance Allowance, Sure Start and better pay progression for ordinary classroom teachers, were real and sustained.
Of course not all was positive, the Blair governments were far too obsessed by measuring teachers and schools on narrow data and Ofsted judgements, yet at least we could see a clear desire to improve outcomes for pupils and conditions of service for teachers.
Now, the task for Starmer and those in the party with a real understanding of state education, like West Hull MP Emma Hardy (a former primary school teacher) is to build a clear platform built upon core progressive values to counter the duplicity of the Conservatives.
Central to this must be a holistic education, which measures schools and their pupils in ways that really matter and not just upon the limited data of test and exam scores.
It should deliver far better remuneration for all education staff.
It must remove the bizarre and unfair system of student loans that curse university students, such as my recently graduated son and my elder daughter, who has just moved to Leeds to start her degree.
It should reverse the hugely divisive and regressive academies programme, which has bedevilled our schools for 15 years. How ridiculous that the two single-sex schools in Beverley are run differently , one by the EYRC , the other, a self-governing academy. This is especially nonsensical, as they operate a joint Sixth Form.
Local authorities, whilst far from perfect, are the proper bodies to manage all our state schools in a democratically legitimate and efficient way ; we must not be afraid to say so.
Most significantly, all Labour education policy should be based on the progressive learning and social development of each child , particularly the more disadvantaged, with practical support of the kind so wonderfully championed over the summer by footballer, Marcus Rashford.
Indeed, I would suggest that that young man should be the totem for our education policy over the coming years. He offers hope for a better, fairer society, which schools, colleges and universities should be at the centre of facilitating.
The next Labour administration – which may not be so far away as many of us feared last December – must seek to deliver this.
Let me end on a personal note of hope for a better future – which is what real education should be about. My youngest is 8, she goes to a splendidly run local primary, there the head and her staff have total professional commitment to develop and support every pupil, they are working their socks off to do this safely during these awful times. Sadly, the staff are doing this with one hand tied behind their backs.
Last month, I was very proud to have a letter in the Guardian praising the school, at the expense of a vacuous and frankly lazy, PM and his supine Education Secretary – both are unworthy of our trust.
By the time my youngest, perhaps follows in her siblings footsteps into higher education, let it follow years of socially progressive education policies that seek to truly enrich each individual child, which is something only a Labour government can deliver.
Ian Richardson – Sept.2020
The views of one member, recently returned to the fold. Please debate them here, or via firstname.lastname@example.org. In the words of our former leader, John Smith :`I would never dream of denying my children the privilege of a state education.`