A dark cloud looms over our schools – and Labour is well-placed to help them weather the storm, writes Jack May
‘Education, education, education’. In a system left languishing by nearly two decades of Tory neglect, this was not just a mantra but a vital commitment to tackling inequality. School buildings were rejuvenated, class sizes were reduced and strict standards for performance were introduced.
Education reform is vital to the Labour agenda. However, with the focus on foreign policy and the economy towards the end of the last Labour government, we lost momentum, leaving the Conservatives to attempt to fill the vacuum. Although Michael Gove was hardly known for his popularity among the profession – one teacher I know still has a pin cushion in his likeness on her desk – he introduced reforms that had far reaching implications and were framed for his base.
Despite the rhetoric surrounding Conservative education reform, the system continues to stutter. For each of the past five years, the government had missed its own targets for teacher recruitment – in fact, teacher training applicants have fallen by a third in just one year. This is reflected by the number of unqualified teachers, which has soared by nearly 20 per cent in the past three years.
The party that created this looming crisis is not going to fix this, no matter who emerges as education secretary. Labour, under inspirational shadow Angela Rayner, must offer a new approach to recruitment that ensures people are drawn to, and stay in, teaching.
The carrot for potential teachers is already very much in place. Bursaries of up to £30,000 are available, and some schools have thrown in private healthcare packages and gym memberships in an effort to attract the best talent. TeachFirst has also created a route that allows graduates direct placement into the classroom, with the promise of a careers such as consulting or the civil service, as a reward.
Tinkering with retail policy will not work. If Labour is serious about offering an education platform that makes long-term improvements, it must consider a radical shift in how schools work.
When one in five teachers is working 60 hours or more a week, struggling with rampant classes in under resourced schools, the profession will obviously be unappealing to potential joiners. Long holidays are hardly of much comfort when teachers are rundown and unhealthily overworked the rest of the time.
Labour should bring fresh ideas to make teaching more appealing as a lifestyle – whether that is shortening school days to reduce the mountain of marking and paperwork, or reshaping the holiday schedule so that shorter breaks take the place of long summers which often leave disadvantaged pupils even further behind.
Rayner is emerging at Labour’s forefront, with passion, motivation, and the ability to unite the different wings of the party. She and her team can drive home the message what damage the Conservatives are doing to our schools off a cliff and create a serious platform of reforms that includes recruiting new teachers, so education can once again be a vital arrow in Labour’s bow.
Jack May is a Progress columnist, writer and editor. He tweets at @JackO_May