When I was appointed shadow minister for schools I was bombarded with messages saying ‘make sure you come to schools and talk to frontline teachers and staff’…as if I wouldn’t!!
If you’re a local student or teacher you’ll know that I have always spent a lot of time visiting local schools, listening to students, leaders, teachers and staff and answering the million questions everyone has without fail.
So on appointment I couldn’t get into schools fast enough and wanted to start local. So last week I spent the whole day at Hove Park School where, in a covid-safe way, I got to spend time with students in many classes and loads of meetings with frontline teachers and students. I know I have a lot to learn and I’m hugely grateful to everyone for being so open with me about the challenges and opportunities of the time.
The atmosphere inside school was calm and purposeful. Every student I met, without fail, was totally chuffed to be back at school, with their friends, and learning again in the very best place to learn for most students – at school. I say this because it was really striking, youngsters were literally fizzing at being back at school and able to be with their mates. A few even told me they didn’t like all this talk of ‘catch up’ as if they’re somehow a problem, ‘I’m raring to go’ one said!
Most students have very individual learning needs right now. When I asked them if, when learning at home, they spent a little more time on the subjects they loved and a little less on those they didn’t, most fessed-up, they had. This means we need to figure out the learning patterns of each student and make sure we compensate in a really smart way so that learning can become balanced and well-rounded again.
This can’t be done with ‘business as usual’ and it can’t be done on the cheap. Rishi Sunak said last week, when asked why he wasn’t funding a school recovery plan, “I can’t fund everyone who comes knocking at my door”. I was livid when a read that. Firstly, why should education have to come knocking? A decent chancellor would be an integral part of any education policy from the beginning, especially in a crisis. And secondly, when David Cameron came knocking, he said ‘I’ll do what I can’. When a Tory donor property developer came knocking, they bent the rules so he could avoid £40m in taxes. And when friends with ministers phone numbers come knocking, they set up a ‘VIP contract programme’.
But students hungry to learn? No, the door is slammed in their face.
Incidentally, Labour’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves MP, was integral to our recovery plan for education. I spent literally hours with her going through it, taking her suggestions for improved delivery and cost effectiveness onboard, and of course she drove us hard on costs but committed to invest in our students and school community to ensure all the skills development they need, and our country needs, happens. That’s the difference between Rachel and Rishi.
I’m staggered that the Tories no longer ‘get’ the link between skills development of students today and the economy of tomorrow. These Tories don’t get the very basics of solid, long term economic security and the role that education plays in it.
One of the lessons I dropped in to was Chinese. The Mandarin teacher was so charismatic and energetic – she didn’t so much teach the language, she performed it! And the students were speaking Chinese with extraordinary confidence and, to my untrained ears, pronunciation too. The breadth of modern education is staggering.
Teachers are exhausted and need investment so they have all the skills needed to pack schools with learning that’s right for the moment. Students repeatedly told me about the mental health challenges faced by young people today. Hove Park School has a full time councillor and support staff which is excellent. We need this kind of provision in every school so that young people learn to cope with stress and emerging challenges before it develops into angriest or other disorders that are barriers to learning and enjoying life to the full.
Next week I’m visiting a school in Stoke on Trent to understand the challenges of sport provision. The week after I’m back in one of our other brilliant schools in Hove and Portslade and I can’t wait to meet more local students and the teachers and staff that help u lock their passion for life and learning.