Hessle Labour party and NUT activist Emma Hardy put together an excellent debate about the future of education in the UK with three interesting speakers and the rare occasion to have an un stage managed Q and A session afterwards. So often you go to these events and the MP chairing it knows who will ask the banal questions, and prevents those who will ask more challenging questions to speak. On this theme it’s very interesting that the word “Trot”, along with “extremist” has made a comeback in the Party. It is used in a derogatory way to describe anyone who doesn’t say “yes” to every Progress led non policy from our Front Bench, or towards people who want to actively campaign to defend their communities. It’s lazy and boring.
If it’s “extreme” to fight for our NHS services and jobs, if it’s “extreme” to oppose monumental Local Government cuts which target and impact on our most vulnerable citizens, if it’s “extreme” to campaign against the total disgrace that is our Financial System which is weighted towards the super rich at the expense of the majority, if it “extreme” to protect my school from falling into the clutches of privatisation and trashing of conditions for staff and students then yes. Guilty as charged. Extremist. (I was watching “A Very British Coup” on 4OD last night and plagiarised that paragraph from Alan Plater’s character Labour PM and Socialist Harry Perkins just in case you were wondering how I had suddenly become erudite).
JOHN KILLEN is a vastly experienced and effective Primary Head Teacher from the East Riding and began his speech by thanking Shadow Secretary of State Stephen Twigg for coming to Hull and actually being prepared to spend time listening to the concerns of real teachers straight from the chalk face.
That’s about as good as it got as regards praise for Stephen Twigg.
John identified six key areas in education and proceeded to demolish not only Gove’s stupidity (all too easy), but also a vast tranch of New Labour policies.
- 1. John railed against the bane of every teacher’s life and one I can readily identify from my 15 years in the profession: the plethora of top down initiative which are ill thought out, unfounded and end up dying when the Secretary of State changes, or decides on a new whim. The Languages Programme under New Labour being a prime example. Everyone knows the sooner the better with modern foreign languages and in 2005 New Labour unveiled an ambitious plan to introduce such teaching in Key Stage Two. It was a cynical ploy to appeal to middle class parents who were dissatisfied that their Prep Scholl Islington neighbours kids were receiving MFL. There was initial funding but in the end the programme withered and was compounded by the crazy decision to drop compulsory languages post 14. By the time Labour left office MFL was in crisis. We now have financial apartheid in State Primary schools were MFL is offered pre or post the school day but parents are obliged to pay. A disgrace in my book. Every department head can relate a similar fiasco in their subject area. It’s the complete lack of consultation that irks us the most.
- 2. John made an argument for taking politics out of education, and leave it to those who know what they are doing. The reason he feels this way is because of what we have just discussed. Democracy means that politicians are elected to set the agenda and it was without doubt Tony Blair’s passion for education that forced it to the top of the agenda, and whilst there is much to dissect regarding our time in power, it is now the accepted will of the UK public to have investment in schools as a priority. Blair’s can do approach and initial willingness to stand up to the vested interests in the civil service and HMI meant much good was done in New Labour’s early days. Politicians need to restore that confidence by working in a meaningful partnership with teachers, families and students across the board.
- 3. Fair Funding. The fact that schools in North London and the South West receive nearly double per pupil funding compared the East Riding and Hull is a total disgrace and something that must be dealt with by raising LA’s up to the higher level rather than having a race to the bottom which is what Gove wants. He is using the discrepancies to force academy status on schools across our area. One area where New Labour was a roaring success was with funding of school buildings where we largely avoided the mistakes in the NHS with PFI. John praised this as the Party showing real commitment to the success of our kids with a wonderfully funded programme, once again trashed by the Tories on virtually Gove’s first day in Office.
- 4. OFSTED. Again the new inspection criteria forced in by Gove are there to set schools up to fail, and force them down the academy route. John made a very good point that a reformed OFSTED should involve inspectors staying in school post inspection, and working with the leadership team and the Governors on writing the Improvement Plan, and continuing to offer support as a critical friend.
- 5. Assessment. Key Stage external examinations are a monumental waste of money (and in my humble opinion a gravy train for boards, textbook writers and the assorted IT “support” offered to schools) when a properly moderated system can be created based on those who know their students the best; teachers! Simply randomly select schools to send in their assessment procedures and results to ensure rigour. In addition get rid of these divisive league tables, which take little or no account of circumstances or the value added by the school.
- 6. The curriculum needs through review at Primary level to restore creativity and excellence in all areas, not just so called core subjects. We could pull an all nighter discussing this issue!
John was followed on to the podium by JULIE DAVIS, a secondary school teacher from Driffield.
She gave an impassioned speech about why we become teachers, and less face it, it’s not for the money! What she said totally resonated with me and I’m proud I did that job to the best of my ability for as long as was physically possible. The last month was desperately difficult as I was in total denial about the onset of this crippling and deadly disease. But by that final Friday in November I knew it was all over. I remember thanking each Year Seven SEN group pupil I had taught that morning individually. They must have thought I had (finally) lost the plot.
Julie brilliantly summed up where we are now. Trashed pay and conditions, the dark spectre of OFSTED wanting you to fail, poor morale, under pressure (some) bullying managers and academies for all being a real possibility with all the mayhem that results.
STEPHEN TWIGG spoke first. We all remember the Portillo moment in 1997 and it has a special place in Labour’s history, and Twigg himself was promising and became the first openly gay MP. A disgrace if you think about it, that it was only in 1997 that this was possible.
Twigg came across as being overly defensive our time in power, and there was a lot of talk around this, which is fine but the problem was that he didn’t come up with one single new policy and there was absolutely no wow factor at play. I remember in the lead up to 1997 that we were desperate for Office and desperate to get started on fixing Britain. It’s as if we are afraid of power now and this is down to one thing. This acceptance that we will have no money. Until the Labour Party moves away from appeasing the rich, and using this stupid and naive argument that the markets will be spooked if we propose to clean up our broken tax system, then we will fall into power by accident and mess it up. No vision means no policies and will add up to failure. Taxing assets, not income and freeing up our economy through a Land Tax (the rest of us pay it, it’s called Council Tax) will then mean we can have a constructive programme for when we win in 2015.
Twigg said some things which are dog whistle ideas for Labour members, but without any concrete suggestions as to how we go about bringing them to fruition. “We need to focus on raising achievement in socially deprived areas”. Great, super, smashing. But how? “The poorest should have the chances that others take for granted.” Ditto.
“We must ensure that central Government works with, and not in isolation from local Government. I want to raise standards in partnership with democratically elected local officials.” More of this later.
He attacked Gove with gusto, but let’s face it, the Education Secretary is the gift that just keeps on giving to the Left. The guy is genuinely deranged. Stephen rightly pointed out the comparisons between Sweden’s failing Free Schools which Gove wants to adopt here, and Finland’s amazing success. But he failed to mention that Finland has a high tax and spend ethos, and chucks money into maternity and childcare costs. Compulsory full time education doesn’t start until seven under the Finnish system, but Mums and Dads can stay at home with robust financial support which Twigg believes we can not offer due to the deficit myth (it’s a tax crisis, will no one except Burnham say this, and even then he never says that in public).
I decided to ask Twigg a general question to probe his values and was pleased with the answer. “What’s the first thing you will do when you walk into the Department in May 2015, after brewing up of course?” Stephen said, “Restore SureStart, it’s the most important programme there is to ensure early intervention, and to support all families no matter what their background. The are destroying it”. Spot on. I believe that a fully funded SureStart can stand alongside the NHS as Labour’s greatest achievement.
Academies came up again and again during the Q and A session. John and Julie both painted a vivid picture of the carnage being wrecked across schools.
Twigg made no attempt to hide his admiration for academies, and to be fair to him he didn’t play to the gallery and talk about the aspiration of restoring LA control. “We can’t turn the clock back”. But Stephen has form in support of actually extending academies with his Gove esque bonkers plan to open Military academies across England. Instead he floated the old chestnut of the umbrella approach where schools bunch together, this is so flawed that it would take all day to explain why.
Finally, and most depressingly he ruled out lock, stock and two smoking barrels any chance that we would restore the EMA, and the most appalling statement of the night called on Sixth Form Colleges, “that could afford it”, to offer scraps from the table to the poorest students. For a Co Op MP to say that is just shameful. What ever happened to the principles of universality of provision, and proper locally accountable democratic schools? Answers on a postcard.
Well done to Emma for putting on the event in the first place, John and Julie for their eloquent defence of our profession and to Stephen Twigg for actually coming and facing the members.