Memo on … schools

Congratulations on your appointment as minister for schools. This is one of the hottest spots in the government. With Tristram Hunt as your secretary of state, things won’t be dull.

The starting point for this job, and the middle and end points, is pupils and their parents. They are what matter most. Soon you will be sucked into a world of structures, academics, teaching unions, newspaper op-eds and contested evidence. Your officials will fill your diary with visits, speeches and seminars. Get a grip. What matters are pupils. If a Labour government cannot deliver an education for every child which equips them for a life of learning, then we may as well pack up now. For us, education is the means of liberation for millions of children.

We need every child to leave school with respect for society’s rules and norms, with intellectual curiosity, with an appreciation of other cultures, religions and languages, with an understanding of the natural world, and a sound grounding in the building blocks of language, science and mathematics. We need young people with character, resilience, self-respect and empathy. There is evidence, as Hunt has said, that character can be taught in the classroom. And, yes, they need to know some history, dates of battles and the names of kings and queens. At the moment, we are failing.

The most pressing challenge is the attainment gap between rich and poor. Seven per cent of rich kids disappear off into their expensive prep and public schools. I’ll come back to them later. But within the remaining 93 per cent, there’s a huge gap between poor working-class and affluent middle-class kids. Recent evidence from Demos suggests that Nick Clegg’s ‘pupil premium’ is failing. Inequality between the attainment of kids on free school meals and the rest is increasing in half of local authority areas, despite the extra cash. In London, the gap is narrowing, because of a range of factors. We need to learn the lessons of London’s schools’ success, especially the excellent London Challenge. Outside London, things are getting worse. So you might want to institute an immediate review of the pupil premium, on the basis that spending more money doesn’t seem to be enough.

As minister you need a great cause to champion. If you try and do everything you won’t do anything. I propose a renewed effort around citizenship education. This of course ties into our policy for Votes at 16. We will have a generation of school pupils voting in elections. Back in 1999, Bernard Crick wrote that ‘citizenship is more than a subject. If taught well and tailored to local needs, its skills and values will enhance democratic life for all of us, both rights and responsibilities, beginning in school and radiating out.’ Crick’s great vision has failed to materialise because governments have failed to give citizenship the priority and funding it needs. It has often been taught by teachers without proper support or training. Let’s make this your legacy issue: citizenship taught to a gold standard in every school, and given the same prestige as maths or science.

The free schools and academies are up and running. They were our idea in the first place, so we need to build on their success, where they work well. We need more cooperative schools too, as part of the mix. Of course, as with any type of school, where new ones are failing, you will need to step in. As the new secretary of state made clear back in 2012 ‘we are not going to go back to the old days of the local authority running all the schools – they will not be in charge. We will keep those free schools going.’ Perhaps your first visit should be to a successful free school, to show parents whose side you’re on. There are plenty to choose from.

What are we going to do about the private schools? They remain a hideous block to any hope of social equality. We’re not going to abolish them. And we’re not going to make them redundant any time soon. So let’s work with them. Let’s ensure every child can use their facilities, share their expertise and tap into their networks. Voluntarily if we may, or compulsorily if we must.

A word about the unions. They are supportive of our manifesto pledge to ensure every teacher has qualified teacher status. Your diary will soon fill with invitations to address their conferences. Is this the best use of your time? Year after year, Labour ministers attended these events, to be booed and barracked by unrepresentative sections of the delegates. It gets the union on the news; but it puts the relationships back by months. Let’s offer small-scale meetings and seminars with ministers and SPADs to members of the teaching profession, direct access for union leaders, but let’s scrap the set-piece ritual humiliation.

Good luck.

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Paul Richards is a writer and political consultant. He is author of the Memo on … column, part of the Campaign for a Labour Majority; read all his pieces here. He tweets @LabourPaul

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Photo: Patrick M

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