We all remember our best teachers. The ones who could bring any subject to life with a thought-provoking question or a vivid image. The ones who could silence a class with ease because they were liked and respected in equal parts. The ones who could somehow get you to push yourself a little bit harder.
There is nothing more important for a child’s education than the quality of their teachers. Moving a young boy or girl from an average teacher to the most effective means that they will learn in six months what would otherwise have taken a year. The cumulative effect of this difference by the time a pupil reaches their GCSEs is huge. Good teachers change lives.
But the education debate too often misses this point, focusing instead on structures and school types. The issues of admissions, accountability and planning surrounding free schools need to be dealt with decisively. But this cannot be the sum of our ambitions. By the next general election half of all schools will be either academies or free schools; the product of 10 years of disruptive conversion and commissioning. Spending the next decade converting them back cannot be in the best interests of young people.
The obsession with structures is also obscuring a growing recruitment crisis in the teaching profession. The average primary school teacher works a 60-hour week, including around six hours in the evenings and eight at the weekend. And the Department for Education’s own research shows that an increasing chunk of this workload is unnecessary bureaucracy: preparing for inspections, filling out paperwork and monotonous data entry. Add to this a Conservative government that is highly critical of teachers and it is no wonder that so many talented teachers are leaving the profession. Instead of going out of our way to empower teachers, we are somehow managing to put them off altogether.
There is another way. As Labour leader I’d focus on helping teachers be the best they can be. No more disruptive structural reforms. I want to empower teachers and ensure that the profession as a whole understands how much we value them. I want to get talented young teachers into classrooms and keep them there.
The best schools are already showing the way forward. At Canons High in Harrow, the school leaders realised that many of their pupils were struggling with their writing. So the school funded Katie Magee, one of their ambitious young teachers, to study for a master’s degree in child literacy. Katie worked with other French, English and history teachers at the school to redesign their teaching based on the research she had done. Results improved dramatically. As leader, I would support this sort of innovation by setting up a fund for teachers across the country to research school improvement, driving up standards and boosting teacher morale in the process.
The Challenge Partners network of schools have developed their own model for school inspections. Each year Leighton Middle School in Bedfordshire is reviewed by other schools from the local network and given feedback on what it could be doing better. The Leighton leadership team also help review other schools. Rather than jumping through hoops for inspectors, the Challenge Partners model enables teachers to challenge and advise each other. Ofsted plays an important role in raising school standards, but research suggests that this model could be more demanding than Ofsted. As leader, I would introduce peer inspection for all good and outstanding schools in order to cut bureaucracy and share good practice.
Education is the key to tackling inequality and it is teachers that take our children on that journey. As leader of the Labour Party I will put teachers back in the driving seat by making them accountable to each other, by freeing them from bureaucracy, and by empowering them to do what they do best: expand opportunity for the next generation. Instead of obsessing over structures, let’s focus on helping teachers be the best they can be.