Exclusive: Teachers 'busting a gut', says Wes Streeting

Labour's shadow schools minister uses first interview in new role to pay tribute to profession's Covid effort, but argues against NEU's call for two-week school closures

Amy Gibbons

Wes Streeting

Teachers have been "busting a gut" for their pupils over the course of the Covid crisis, Labour's new shadow schools minister has told Tes.

But in his first interview since beginning his new role, Wes Streeting also argued against the UK's biggest teaching union's calls for schools to close for two weeks as part of a national "circuit-breaker" lockdown.

Tes revealed on Friday that Mr Streeting, MP for Ilford North, had been chosen to replace Margaret Greenwood as Nick Gibb's shadow.

Exclusive: Wes Streeting is new shadow schools minister

Labour: Greenwood resigns as schools minister

Coronavirus: Teachers demand two-week closures after jump in cases

The change came after Ms Greenwood resigned last week as part of a rebellion against Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer over the so-called "spy cops" law.

Now Mr Streeting, whose sister is a teacher, has used Tes to pay tribute to teachers for their work supporting pupils throughout the Covid crisis.

'Enormous thank you' for teachers

"I just want to actually say an enormous thank you to the entire profession, because they have been busting a gut for their pupils in very challenging circumstances," he said.

"Whether it's teaching staff or other staff in schools  these have been unprecedented circumstances."

He added: "I'm really looking forward to working with the sector because my number one priority is making sure that every child gets a great education that enables them to grow up to be whoever they want to be."

Mr Streeting, who has been open about the fact he received free school meals as a child, spoke passionately about the fact his "driving mission in politics" has always been to tackle educational disadvantage.

"There is absolutely no doubt that without excellent teachers and a great state education, I wouldn't be where I am today," he said.

The former National Union of Students president said education is his "number one passion". And it's not just his sister who shares the interest – one of his best friends is a school finance manager.

"You can imagine that within hours of getting the job, I've already had my ears burned [about] what kind of financial pressures and practical pressures really are facing schools," Mr Streeting said.

"And it's going to be my job to ground ministers in reality."

But the new shadow schools minister is not backing the NEU teaching union's calls to close schools for two weeks as part of a short "circuit-breaker" lockdown in response to rising pupil Covid infections.

Mr Streeting said he agreed with Sir Keir that a two-week circuit-breaker was needed, but that the country should "avoid" closing schools outside of half term.

Asked whether schools should shut for two weeks, as suggested by the NEU, or just for the half-term break, Mr Streeting said: "We want to avoid closing schools outside of half term because we know that for those children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, missing out on school really does do significant harm.

"And we also know that [despite] the very best efforts of teachers, who have been bending over backwards throughout this pandemic to make sure that children continue to receive support when they've been at home, for some families that's just simply not possible."

GCSE 2021 delay 'not enough'

Mr Streeting also said a delay to next year's exams was "necessary", but "not enough" to make sure the tests are fair for all. Pupils should also receive "additional support", such as catch-up classes, and schools should get extra help to see this through, he said.

He added that he was keen to speak to teachers, parents and pupils about the "stresses", "strains" and "challenges" they face, so "we don't have a repeat of the debacle that affected GCSE and A-level students earlier in the summer".

The 2020 exams crisis was "one of the worst things I think I've seen in education for quite a long time," he said.

Asked if there should be a longer delay to exams next summer, Mr Streeting said: "I think it's more about the other measures that are needed, but I'm keen to get the views of teachers, parents and pupils about how they're feeling about all of it, and to get a clear steer from schools about what more the government can do to help them to make sure that children get a really good quality education this year and aren't left floundering when exam season arrives."

'Get real' on school funding

Mr Streeting also said that ministers "have got to get real about some of the financial pressures facing our schools".

"I do think ministers are living in a different world, and do not understand just how much of a financial pressure is on schools, whether that's because of the need to provide everything from PPE equipment, deep cleaning of schools, even basic things like having masks available, paper towels instead of normal...towels, all of these costs add up, and I do think that ministers have got to get real about some of the financial pressures facing our schools," he said.

But asked if he was calling for schools to be reimbursed for Covid costs, the new shadow minister was non-committal.

He said: "I think the first thing that ministers need to do is to ground themselves in the actual reality of the financial pressures on schools. Clearly, there are some schools that are going to find this more challenging than others.

"And those schools [shouldn't] be financially disadvantaged because they are doing the right thing in terms of providing PPE and support to pupils. And we're going to be keeping up the pressure on ministers on that."

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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