Classroom candidates

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Would a Labour government make any difference to teachers? The profession is reserving judgment, but one thing is certain: it would certainly affect those who hope to depart their classrooms for the Palace of Westminster this spring. TES research has revealed that a substantial proportion of Labour's new prospective parliamentary candidates are from an education background.

Of the 368 hopefuls honing their campaign speeches and doorstep manner for Labour, 108 - that's 30 per cent - are or have been teachers or lecturers. No other profession is so well represented; the list contains only 25 lawyers and 22 journalists. Among new candidates for the Liberal Democrats, 17 per cent have a background in education but many are standing in unwinnable seats. And only 12 of the Conservative Party's candidates list a job in education on their curriculum vitae - three of them full-time school teachers.

Liz Blackman is a 47-year-old history and careers teacher at a Nottinghamshire secondary school. Why is she standing for Parliament? "Anger and frustration," she says. "Not just at what is happening in education, but from having two children, and no confidence that the Government would offer them any opportunities."

Mrs Blackman was selected from an all-women shortlist in 1995 to represent Labour in the rural-and-small-town constituency of Erewash, in Derbyshire. She needs a 4.5 per cent swing to win the seat from Treasury minister Angela Knight, who is defending a 5,700 majority. "I've been a Labour supporter all my life," says Mrs Blackman, "and I realised that in order to make a difference I needed to get involved in politics, because that's where decisions are made."

Class sizes and crumbling school buildings are recurrent issues on the doorstep, she says. Derbyshire has a particularly severe overcrowding problem, with more than 60 per cent of primary classes containing more than 30 children. In the staffroom, the issues are "the changing stance on early retirement, class sizes, lack of technology, delivering the curriculum". There is no appetite among teachers, says Mrs Blackman, for increased selection. "They don't see that as a way of levering up standards. We don't either." (In her mind, it is clear Mrs Blackman has already completed the transition from teacher to politician. When she says "we", she is referring to "we" in the Labour Party, not "we" in the staffroom.)

But despite the large numbers of teachers representing Labour in key marginal seats, prospects for a "teachers' republic" - as an early Mitterrand administration was dubbed in France - appear limited. Labour's high command is not keen to talk up the high number of candidates from education backgrounds, preferring to point out that the list also includes people with business and finance backgrounds. "It was ever thus, " said one spokeswoman, rather waspishly. "People in education tend to support Labour."

But do they? In 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher came to power, just over half of the teachers questioned by MORI for The TES supported her. In 1983, the Tories still had strong support from the profession, with 44 per cent planning to vote Conservative and only 26 per cent for Labour. By 1992, the Tory vote among teachers was at a low of 15 per cent, with 40 per cent of those polled saying they planned to vote Labour. Research late last year by The TES found the Lib-Dems attracted most support from teachers for their education policies, with 61 per cent saying theirs were the best. Only 8 per cent of the profession thought the Conservatives' policies were best, and 30 per cent chose Labour.

Estelle Morris MP, a prominent member of Labour's eight-strong education and employment team, is a former teacher herself. She taught for 18 years in an inner-city comprehensive, Sidney Strin-ger School in Coventry, until she was elected MP for Birmingham, Yardley, in 1992. The large number of teacher candidates lining up for the 1997 General Election is news to her. "Really? Gosh!" she exclaims.

Estelle Morris says the team is already committed to keeping in touch with the grass roots, and has no plans to develop an education forum among teacher MPs. "A caucus can be exclusive, " she says. "And we're already constantly out there talking to education people and members of the public." David Blunkett's office sends out a regular bulletin to members interested in education, which covers policy thinking and invites feedback."We don't have a huge staff," says Estelle Morris. "We have to rely on information gathered by those who are sympathetic to us out there in the real world. We're desperately keen not to develop policy in a vacuum."

Despite those reassuring words, she rejects the suggestion that Labour will be on the side of teachers. "Our central agenda is raising standards for every pupil in every school," she says. "I think that's already on teachers' agenda, and I find teachers welcome the fact that we share the same agenda as them. " So is Labour on the side of parents? "Absolutely," she says, "because they're on the side of children."

In the l980s Fiona Mactaggart was head of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants before deciding to train as a primary teacher. She taught in south London and became a lecturer in primary education at London University' s Institute of Education. She also had a spell as shadow leader of Wandsworth borough council. Now she is expecting to win Slough for Labour at the General Election. But she doesn't expect to have special influence over education policy in a Labour government. "David Blunkett does respect his colleagues, " she says, "but I don't believe that teachers are the only people with a view on education. People who use the systems often 'know' in a completely different way from the people who work in them. I don't think teachers should have a particularly special right in terms of education, except that we do talk to parents and children."

Perhaps because of her primary teaching background, Fiona Mactaggart articulates Labour education policy with a conviction lacking in some of her colleagues. "I think it is quite wonderful that Labour has focused on the early years of schooling," she says. "It is unusual in political parties; the focus tends to be on the later years. It's really exciting that Labour has said we will put the resources into early years first. And it's a sign that Labour is going for the long term."

Dr Brian Iddon, 56, is reader in organic chemistry at Salford University and Labour candidate for Bolton South East. As a man working in higher education, he is more representative of the education bloc among Labour's prospective MPs. He describes himself as "comfortable" with "80 to 90 per cent" of the party's education policy. "There are things I would argue against, but behind the scenes," he says. "I'm not totally in favour of what they're doing, but I can see why they're doing it. The name of the game is to get into power." His own educational history buttresses his support for Labour's pledges of higher standards for all. An 11-plus failure, he is "dead against" selection. ("It is too young for some people,especially boys."). He was also the first child from his Lancashire village to go to university. ("Because it was an agricultural area, we were all groomed from primary school to pick potatoes and plant peas.")

Dr Iddon is not alone in being uneasy about selection. While maintaining their united stance in public, privately some of the teacher candidates are less than happy with the compromise highlighted by the Wirral by-election. "We have this difficulty," says one. "We say no more selection. Then we say we're not going to close the grammar schools. What the hell are we doing? We're either against selection or for it."

Diana Organ, a 44-year-old former special needs teacher, is standing for Labour in the Forest of Dean. She believes the pledge to provide nursery places for all four-year-olds, and limit infant class sizes, will cut down the number of children needing special help. "Kids I've worked with had no pre-school, went into a large reception class, then got to seven or eight and could not read. At 11, they believed they could never do it, and they didn't want to do it anyway because it was 'stupid'," she says. "I'll be clamouring for money for special needs, because it can't be done on the cheap. But resourcing early years will eradicate half the problems."

None of the teacher politicians we interviewed is a fan of Chris Woodhead,the chief inspector of schools, despite Tony Blair's assertion that Mr Woodhead would keep his job under a Labour government. "I think he should get a taste of his own medicine, " says one. "There are reasons to keep him, but we can't let him get away with this gung-ho behaviour."

This reluctance to demand the chief inspector's head is typical of the teachers who would represent New Labour. Reciting the same, disciplined script, they speak of the absence of "magic wands", as if wizardry were the only alternative to Conservative spending plans. They say publicly that parents must decide whether grammar schools are right or wrong, and privately that they abhor selection. Most of them decline to criticise their leader's choice of an opted-out school for his sons.

They proudly quote Tony Blair's statement that education will be the passion of his government, but theirs is a curious kind of passion, this muted pride in the promise of nursery places and smaller infant classes. So long in the public eye and pilloried for their profession, these teachers are already battle-hardened and seem to lack the intense, endearing enthusiasm usually associated with amateurs. "I think one of the reasons we've got such credibility at the moment is that we're not promising the earth," says Liz Blackman.

Do the teacher politicians believe they will have the support of their colleagues, at the ballot box as well as by the staffroom coffee machine? "The difficulty for the party is to articulate the modernising principles without appearing to be exactly the same as the Tories," admits Vernon Coaker, a 43-year-old deputy head, and Labour candidate for Gedling, a suburb of Nottingham. "People are working very hard, morale is generally poor, and teachers feel unappreciated. I think they're looking for a new start and a fresh beginning, and I think that's what they will receive. "

Steve Clamp, the Labour candidate in West Derbyshire, is head of English at Frederick Gent School, deputy leader of the local council, and his school's National Union of Teachers representative ("one of those jobs you can never get rid of, like a tattoo").

"At the moment, I feel schizophreni c," he says. "You can be 8.30 to 4.30 wiping the noses and sorting out the bullying and saying Joe's done a marvellous poem. At 4.30 you're trying to sort out the latest composting problems at the recycling depot. And at 7.30 you're discussing issues of national importance with the people of Darley Dale."

Education is one of his key interests, but did not drive him into politics. "I'm not just standing because I want to see education improved," he says. "I live in a small community, which I really cherish, and I see all the problems created by Tory legislation. My parents created within me a sense that, if you felt something was wrong, you had a duty to do something about it."

Frederick Gent School, a 700-pupil 11-16 comprehens ive, was recently inspected, and as an MP Mr Clamp would lobby for reforming inspection procedures. "Labour needs to look very carefully at the inspection process," he says. "There's a real sense that it's a snapshot, that it's unfair. Inspection must remain, but there needs to be a discussion afterwards, and genuine constructive dialogue. And I've been appalled at the way some of these reports are written, as though they're a literal translation from Albanian. That's certainly something I would be taking up with David Blunkett. "

Steve Clamp feels he has had some opportunity to make his views known to the Labour leadership, mainly through meetings at conferences. "It's been difficult to get close to David Blunkett, but possible to put forward views and even question perceived wisdom," he says. "We're committed to raising standards for all, and that for me is a vitally important principle. In the event of my winning, I would find it very difficult to leave the classroom behind. Despite everything that's been thrown at us, I still love the job."

Alan Campbell, 39, is head of history and the sixth form at Hirst High School, an 800-pupil upper school in North-umberland. Mr Campbell is expected to win Tynemouth - a key seat for Labour - from Tory MP Neville Trotter, who won by only 597 votes in 1992. Education is only one of his political interests. "We're not going in because we're teachers," he says. "We're going in because we want to change the country for the better. It's the party's decision to make education the passion of the next government."

Does Labour have the support of teachers in the North-east? "Some colleagues are members of the Labour Party," says Mr Campbell, guardedly. "There's a suspicion of politicians among teachers, because they fear education is being used as a party political football. " Staffroom issues at his school, he says, are teachers' workload, spending cuts and social issues in the wider community - the school serves a former mining area where all the pits bar one are now closed. "Teachers are battling against a spiral of economic decline, crime and drugs," he says. "They're increasingly politicised because they see what's going on, but they're not necessarily party-politicised."

In Tynemouth, where around 1,000 18 to 25-year-olds are unemployed, Labour's pledge to tackle training for this age group is well received. "Skills in this part of the world are a very important issue," says Mr Campbell. "There has been some inward investment, and there needs to be a lot more. We're talking about a new industrial revolution in this area."

Alan Campbell, like some of his colleagues, makes the point that Labour politicians at least tend to use the state education system. "Tories didn't come up through state schools, and their children are not at them," he says. "The one thing I resent about the Tories is that they have under-valued learning, the whole principle of education. Children should have respect for themselves, and for what they're doing."

AnNe Begg, 41, is principal teacher of English at

Arbroath Academy and Lab-our's candidate for Aberdeen South, the seat currently held by Raymond Robertson, Scottish Office minister for education. Constituency boundaries have been redrawn since the 1992 election, but Miss Begg estimates she needs a swing of between 4 and 6 per cent to take the seat. She lists education as her prime political interest, followed by Scottish devolution.

The educational issues are different in Scotland, both in the staffroom and on the doorstep. Selection is a non-issue, with 96 per cent of children attending comprehensive schools and the rest going private. "It's bemusing to us to hear that the comprehensive system isn't working," she says. "But you realise that what they call a comprehensive isn't a comprehensive at all, because it's got a grammar school next door to it."

Labour's aim to lower infant class sizes is welcome among both parents and teachers, even though Scottish classes are already restricted by a national agreement to 33 children up to age 13, with even lower numbers for practical and exam classes. Teacher morale, says Anne Begg, has not been as hard hit as in England. "There's a tiredness in teachers," she says, "but a much closer partnership between teachers and parents. Scots are proud of their education system, and there's a feeling that it's superior to the English one."

Anne Begg is a member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the professional body that Labour plans to replicate in England and Wales. All teachers in Scotland go through a two-year probationary period overseen by the council, and must be registered with it in order to teach in state schools. Labour policy for Scotland includes plans to extend the role of the council into staff development and possibly accrediting INSET training.

Another policy for Scotland - to slow down the rate of change in post-16 qualifications and examining bodies - is likely to be popular with teachers, says Miss Begg. "I think they've got the secondary teacher vote, just like that," she says. She has had contact with David Blunkett, but not on education matters. Blunkett wrote to extend his support to her as a potential MP with a physical disability. She suffers from Gaucher's Disease, a blood disorder that has led to the erosion of her bone marrow. Since the mid-1980s, she has been in a wheelchair, hence "Hot Wheels", her nickname at Arbroath Academy.

Anne Begg says she would expect the party to draw on her Scottish educational experience if she is elected. "I feel passionately about education and I would expect if elected that the expertise I have would be of use. But it's more likely to be in a Scottish context."

Labour's class of 1997

Of the 374 prospective Labour MPs standing at the coming election

108 are or have been involved in education.

66 of those, are currently teaching,

lecturing or tutoring.

27 are former teachers or lecturers and 15 work part-time in education.

Of the 66 candidates teaching full-time,

47 are men and 19 are women.

44 work in London, the South-east or the South-west.

Roughly half teach in higher or further education, with most of the rest working in secondary schools.

17 need a swing of less than 6 per cent to win the seat. 9 need a swing of up to 10 per cent, and 40 need swings of more than 10 per cent.

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