I found myself in a very unusual position today: for a moment I agreed with the Tory schools minister, Nick Gibb.
He said that our school system is ‘unrecognisable’ from the one when they came to power. He's right. It is, but not in the way he thinks.
School wasn’t perfect when I was growing up; after all, I was brought up under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but I don’t remember my school closing early on a Friday because they couldn’t afford to stay open; or my parents being asked, either for donations to pay for basic supplies like pencils and textbooks.
Because since the Tories returned to power in 2010, they’ve made our society, and our schools, less equal, and their obsession with cuts has been felt in classrooms across England.
This time last year I was horrified by reports that malnourished children were filling their pockets with food from the school canteen to take home because they were hungry. One teacher reported their pupils had ‘grey skin’.
It sounds like something out of a Dickens story. But it’s happening today, here, in one of the richest countries in the world. So much for the Prime Minister’s promise that austerity was over. It certainly isn’t for our kids.
It’s hard enough to teach in those conditions, but the Tories have also piled ridiculous demands onto our teachers and pupils.
As Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, one of the many complaints I hear from teachers is about the time, effort and cost of the national tests they are forced to carry out by the government. England’s school children are now the most tested in the world.
That isn’t just stressful for children and teachers alike but it isn’t doing anything to make sure they’re actually getting a decent education. In fact, they are learning and teaching fewer subjects and a narrower range of knowledge in them. To top it all off, there isn’t actually any evidence to suggest that it improves teaching and learning in primary school anyway.
So, today, at the National Education Union conference in Liverpool, Jeremy Corbyn has announced that Labour will abolish the government’s SATs at Key Stages 1 and 2. This is absolutely the right thing to do. And it’s necessary: it’s been well reported over the past few years that the way we asses pupils in primary schools is simply not fit for purpose.
By replacing them with a new, fairer and broader system – one that has been developed with parents and teachers – a Labour government will support schools to teach a wider range of subjects, knowledge and skills, rather than just teaching to the test. It’ll reduce the stress and burden of testing on children and teachers, and mean that we get reliable measures of what pupils they know and where they need extra support.
I’m sure the Tories’ Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, will say this shows Labour is ‘soft’ on schools. But he’ll be wrong. We’ll get high standards in education by ensuring that every pupil gets a rounded education fit for a fair, modern society. It means valuing and trusting the professional judgment of the teachers and properly investing in our schools so they have the resources they need.
Because as Jeremy said today, education is, by its very nature, a team effort. When we give our children the best start in life, their achievements will benefit us all.
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