Congratulations on your appointment as the Shadow Secretary of State for Education. At this week’s party conference, the development of Labour’s education policies for the next general election will start in earnest. I want to share with you five major issues that we need to address:
Going to school should be a happy and enjoyable experience for all children – a great opportunity to learn about the world, to develop skills and understandings, to engage in a huge range of activities (including sports, music, drama and art) and to make friends. Above all, it should be fun. All parents would like to think that their child’s life is a happy one. As a society we ought to take the same view. And yet somehow we have created an attainment target agenda for schools and children that has generated high levels of pressure and anxiety, and a sense of failure for all too many children. How can we have done this to our children? We need to develop a much more humane approach to schooling.
The state system of education.
Over the last twenty years we have seen a gradual break-up of the state system of schooling. The variety of schools with different systems of governance and regulations has led to a complete lack of coherence. Free schools, Academies, Faith schools and Specialist Schools now abound. This makes no sense at all. Parents overwhelmingly want their local school to be a good school and part of a coherent system. We need to reverse this fractured system, and re-create a spirit of collegiality, cooperation and mutual support among all schools, overseen by a supportive local authority.
At the age of 16, pupils have a number of options such as direct entry into employment, career training, apprenticeships, further education, and higher education. The destruction of high quality careers services has left many pupils unable to get the advice they need. Too many pupils have embarked on training and education options that have not been the right ones for them, and have not led on to the careers they hoped to follow. We need to re-establish high quality post-16 advice. For those going to university, we have created an unforgivable system of graduate debt for a whole generation. We have got to re-think our approach to how we support those going to university.
Teaching is a highly skilled profession that requires not only subject knowledge, but an understanding of teaching, learning and child development, how to build trusting, caring and supportive relationships with pupils, and an awareness of the teacher’s wider duties and responsibilities, such as safe-guarding. All teachers need to be properly trained so that they can best address their pupils’ individual needs. This is only fair to them, to ensure they do not start their careers ill-prepared, without the understanding and skills they need.
Vulnerable and troubled pupils.
There are many pupils who face adverse circumstances in their lives, and many of these also find it difficult to make progress at schools. One of the casualties of the attainment target driven agenda, is that schools find it increasingly difficult to give teachers the time they need to provide individualised support and care. Many teachers don’t have time to listen to pupils’ concerns and anxieties, and engage in a caring and supportive dialogue with them and, when needed, provide mentoring. The recent cases of young girls being sexually exploited highlights just how easy it for the desperate plight that some children face to go unchecked. Too many pupils are failed by the education and care system, both academically and socially, because their personal needs are not addressed.
In shaping our priorities for education, we need to always bear in mind our duty of care to every child, and how their individual needs are addressed.