Dear Ms Powell,
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you. A number of other members of our profession have tried writing letters to Nicky Morgan but she isn’t being very kind to us at us at the moment so I thought I’d try you instead. My name is Tim; I’m a Labour voter and a deputy head teacher at an inner London primary school. I’m leaving my job in the summer and last month I published an article explaining why.You can read the article here. It was shared tens of thousands of times on social media, it was read by almost 200,000 people and it was published in both the Independent and the TES. I’m not saying this to boast (as a primary school teacher, I know very well that boasting isn’t nice) but to assure you that I speak for a large proportion of our profession for whom my article obviously struck a nerve. I wanted to get in touch with you, on behalf of all them all, to ask you to help us.
If people remember one thing about the promise the Labour government made when it came to power in 1997, it’s that its priorities were “education, education, education.” In 1997 schools in Britain were in pretty serious decline compared to those in other European countries. They were underfunded, understaffed and the buildings themselves were falling apart. Huge numbers of children were leaving school without basic maths and English skills, juvenile crime and teenage pregnancy rates were soaring, bullying was rife, sexism and homophobic abuse were treated as inevitable facts of life and many schools still had outdoor toilets. If you read my article, you’ll know that I had my disagreements with the Blair government about education but, on balance, I believe that what was delivered under the succession of education secretaries in both the Blair and Brown government was very successful at tackling the problems they inherited. In 2010, the year your party left office, the world-renowned Pearson Group study on education found that Britain’s school system was the sixth best in the world and the second-best in Europe after the educational utopia in Finland that we are always hearing about.
The Conservative government has taken a sledgehammer to Labour’s achievements on education. Our schools’ budgets are falling, our staff are leaving, assessment is in utter chaos, once-happy, vibrant institutions are becoming joyless exam factories testing an increasingly narrow and irrelevant curriculum and the life chances of children across the country are suffering as a consequence. Instead of addressing the challenges our schools face head-on, the government is pursuing an unnecessary and expensive campaign to virtually privatise the entire education system, against the wishes of teachers, parents and local communities. It’s an outrageous assault on one of our most important public services and it seems to be happening with barely a murmur of complaint in the media.
The problem, and I don’t say this to criticise but so you understand my concerns, is that Labour seem to have gone pretty quiet about this issue over the last few years. A lot of people don’t really know what its policy is on education and, if I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure I do either. I understand the next general election isn’t due until 2020 and you’ll need time to get your message just right but I’d still like to hear a few more suggestions about how you might want to do things differently. If you google “Labour education policy” you can’t find anything written since the election last year when, apart from a pledge to ensure all teachers were qualified and a vague commitment to protecting SureStart, alternative answers to the big questions facing education in the twenty-first century were nowhere to be found in Labour’s manifesto. It has been good to hear Mr Corbyn taking a stand against forced academy conversion for all schools over the last few weeks but many of us still feel completely in the dark about what Labour would do instead. It feels like the Tories have a big (if completely misguided) vision for education and Labour simply react to it as it is unveiled, rather than attempting to set out a completely different approach.
I know Labour is going through a bit of a funny time at the moment but this is an issue that it should be able to unite around utterly. Your position gives you the sort of opportunity someone like me could only dream of: to interrogate Nicky Morgan directly about what her government is doing, to put forward that alternative vision and to demand loudly that our children deserve better than this. Labour wins elections when it’s bold, inspiring and forward-thinking. And it will need all those qualities if it’s going to repair the damage that has been done in to schools over the last six years.
Opposing Nicky Morgan is one of the most important jobs in British politics at the moment. There’s an army of teachers and parents out there who would love to help you do it and they’d love to hear more of your plans so they can do just that. The education system is beset with fear: the fear of headteachers forced against their will to lead their school into an uncertain future as part of an academy brand; the fear of teachers living under constant scrutiny as they prepare children for bizarrely pitched, poorly-designed tests and exams; the fear of children who have been told that all their success and failure as individuals is almost entirely dependent on those tests… what all these people need at the moment is a bit of a hope. I believe that you, as shadow education secretary, can do more than anyone else to give it to them.
Please let us know how we can help.
Brilliant article Tim!
As usual superbly incisive writing.