When Emma Hardy used her maiden Parliamentary speech to rail against a narrowing of the curriculum – that wasted children’s talents – many teachers will have recognised a kindred spirit.
As a former primary school teacher of 12 years, the new MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle says that she wants to use her position of influence to say what teachers would say if they had the same platform.
“People were saying, “This is what I’ve been thinking all along,’” says Hardy of the personal feedback she received following her speech this summer. “I was representing so many teachers who have spoken to me, who said they don’t like what [the government] is doing.”
In June’s snap election, Hardy won the seat previously held by former education secretary Alan Johnson. In her previous career, she had taken pupils to Westminster to interview him. But while she is now a politician, her teaching experience shines through. At her Hull office, based in a council estate community centre, she is eagerly awaiting delivery of a large laminated map of her constituency and the erasable pens she knows she will need to write on it.
Hardy will sit on the Commons Education Select Committee. Asked what she would like it to investigate, she does not hesitate: “I would love to look at the accountability of schools because so much feeds from that.”
It is an issue that she is passionate about, and in her first Commons speech she highlighted arts subjects “being pushed out because of the high-stakes accountability in our schools”.
While some parents can compensate with after-school activities, she warned that many cannot, and claimed “we are wasting the talents and abilities of so many of our children because of the failed way we judge schools”.
A teaching family
There seemed a certain inevitability that Hardy would become a teacher, having been brought up near Hull in a teaching family – although she says “indoctrinated might be too strong a word”.
For her father, who left school with few qualifications, evening classes and further education provided a route out of poverty (parity of esteem for FE is another issue she hopes the select committee will focus on). For a while, he was her primary headteacher. It meant she was sent home at lunchtimes to collect milk for the staffroom and spent summer holidays on the site. After her parents told her she needed to look at alternative careers, Hardy worked as a customer manager at Abbey National but, seeking something more fulfilling, she signed up for a PGCE.
Her placement was at Shakespeare Primary in Leeds, which Hardy describes as a “challenging school”. It nurtured refugee pupils who would recount horrific stories from their past. The school won a Stephen Lawrence Award for work against racism and taught Hardy about the role of schools in society.
“That’s the power of education: when you can create an oasis of calm or place of safety outside of all that’s happening in the world around – that for me is the sign of a good school,” she says.
Hardy became increasingly frustrated by the changes brought in by Michael Gove when he was education secretary, which she felt put too much emphasis on maths and English at the expense of skills such as oracy.
“I didn’t want to be complicit in a system I felt was wrong – I hear this now from more teachers,” she says.
“They look at what they are being asked to do and some of them are feeling they are not helping children, they are harming them. It’s that internal battle where you feel like ‘I can’t continue to be complicit in something’.”
A light-bulb moment came when Hardy found herself explaining “some nonsense about Spag” to a couple at a parents’ evening and how their child was slightly behind.
“I’m thinking: ‘What we should be saying is that your child is confident and articulate. They are going to be successful because clearly they have got parents who adore them and are supportive.’”
A visit to her school by the NUT division secretary started the journey that would eventually lead Hardy to leave the classroom and work for the union. She went on her first march, where she felt “at home”, and lobbied Alan Johnson on teachers’ pensions.
“Things need to change. I felt I had to keep stepping up to the next bit, so I became involved as a school rep, then I became a local officer, then I started working for the NUT and then I became an MP,” she says.
As an NUT organiser in Barnsley she worked on the union’s workload charter to improve teacher recruitment and retention, consulting teachers on what schools could do to reduce their workload. It was, Hardy says, a way of empowering the profession.
“Teachers forget about their own wellbeing until they have been broken by it.
“I would support teachers in not being unreasonable, but saying, ‘This is my workload at the moment, I don’t feel able to take [that] on.’”
Sats, she says, are “not fit for purpose, at all”. Hardy wants a different way of holding schools to account. “It’s not about the children, it’s about judging the teacher and about judging the school.”
Call for fairness
Although she does not want to give an alternative model, she suggests sampling as one option and says she would not do away with “a form of inspection”, although she has concerns about the high-stakes pressure of the current model.
Hardy also wants “some sort of scale” to be introduced to set the salaries of academy trust chief executives, warning it is “just not fair” when they receive big pay rises when their classroom teachers’ pay is capped.
“If you give more to them, you are taking more away from somebody else. You are paying them all that money, which means you are giving less to the schools, giving less to the children. Is that fair?”
On school funding, she believes that Justine Greening’s announcement of an extra £1.3 billion for schools, found from elsewhere in the DfE’s budget, was a “clever political move that is actually ineffective and won’t help many schools”.
The solution is “to fund schools properly. They have got to commit to having more money for education. There are no shortcuts.” Hardy worries schools are being expected to do too much – the idea they will be dealing with mental health “set my blood boiling”.
“You can’t say ‘this school is a bad school’ because it hasn’t solved all the problems around it and the children have not come out like they would at Eton. It makes me really cross.”
But while, as an MP, she will be tackling such issues of national importance, for some her legacy will always be much more personal.
The weekend after her election, one former pupil tweeted: “It’s pretty cool when your Y1 teacher @EmmaHardyMP becomes an MP but it’s still not as cool as when she first showed you Google Earth.”