Good Morning. As Labour’s Shadow Schools’ Minister it’s a real pleasure to join your conference today. As a GMB member myself I feel part of the public services team and therefore very much on your side.
The first person to greet me in every school I've visited is the receptionist. A crucial member of the staff team she – and it always is a she, though there’s no reason why it always should be – is the face and voice of the school. It’s shop window. The person who makes the crucial first impression.
Support staff are a crucial part of the school or college team. As crucial as the teaching staff. Whether it’s the receptionist, the caretaker, the teaching assistant, the dinner supervisor, the learning mentor, the technician, the cleaner, the librarian, the catering staff, the finance officer or someone else carrying out a key role, support staff are crucial.
I well remember in the heavy winter snowfall being in college before 7am and it was the Estates Manager and Head of Student Welfare who worked with me to coordinate closing the college safely liaising with bus services, local radio and other agencies.
Like teaching staff support staff go the extra mile day in day out. Their professionalism must be recognised.
That’s why it was right that Labour’s manifesto had a commitment to bring back the School Support Staff Pay Review Body. And that’s why good schools should have clear policies to invest in the training and development of all their staff.
Good schools should have clear Dignity at Work policies for dealing with unacceptable behaviour towards any member of staff. No member of staff should experience a lack of respect from anyone whoever they are – student, parent, colleague or member of the public. Violence at work should always be challenged and never be tolerated.
My first job was on the Preston Road Estate in Hull. I could see the cranes of the docks from my classroom window. A dramatic reminder of the relationship between education and the world of work and our role – like cranes - in lifting horizons and raising aspirations.
But education didn’t just happen in the classroom. It happened taking youngsters on week long camps to the North York Moors. It happened taking youngsters for their first experience of live theatre in Hull, transformed into next year’s UK City of Culture.
Experiences beyond my students’ world but on their doorstep.
Comprehensive education revolutionised the life chances of generations of working class children like myself allowing us to achieve great things in all walks of life.
This year we celebrate the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth. Revolutionary comprehensive education and the Open University are amongst his greatest legacies and some of the greatest motors of social mobility.
In contrast today’s government too often focuses on the wrong things. In danger of replacing a spiral of success with ever decreasing circles of failure; rolling back so much of the progress we've made.
It’s a government fixated with structures that sees academisation as the panacea for school improvement.
Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Labour’s sponsored academy programme did a huge amount to transform a small number of persistently failing schools in disadvantaged areas - and brought much needed investment, support and innovation. That’s a legacy to be proud of.
But it was never about turning all schools into academies. Because there is no evidence that academisation, in and of itself, leads to school improvement.
Ofsted’s latest figures show that there are 17,000 more children in inadequate academies and Free Schools than in inadequate schools maintained by the local authority. Yet the Government seems uninterested in tackling underperformance in academy schools, despite the fact that one in five of them are struggling. New research by PwC reveals that only three of the biggest academy chains has a positive value-added rating, whilst just one of the 26 biggest primary sponsors achieves results above the national average.
Something’s gone wrong when over half a million children are now in super-size classes in primary school. Of these, some 38,500 primary pupils are in classes of over 36 pupils and 15,000 are now in class sizes of at least 40.
Despite the growing need for more primary school places by 2013 the Tories have already spent more than £241 million opening Free Schools in areas where there is no shortage of school places. Even in times of austerity there is plenty of cash to spend on their pet projects!
The mounting pressure on school places is now starting to hit secondary schools, with figures showing an increase in the number of pupils in very large classes last year.
The balance between local accountability and central control, has swung too far in one direction and needs redressing.
We need stronger local oversight and accountability of all schools regardless of whether they’re an academy or a free school. Local authorities should be able to ensure sufficient places and fair admissions.
But the Tory Government remains fixated on structures. Yet for all its bravado the word ‘academies’ didn’t feature in the 937 word Queen’s Speech to open the current parliamentary session! This Government U-turn on, let’s face it, their sole policy idea for schools, cannot be overstated.
Just the announcement of this plan in the Schools White Paper, amusingly titled Education Excellence Everywhere, caused headaches for head teachers. They were forced to turn their focus from gearing up pupils for upcoming exams and assessments, to whether they should jump into a multi-academy chain before they are pushed.
So school leaders should see this reversal as a clear signal that the foot is off their throat on this issue. They can continue to choose the school structure that’s in the best interest of their school community.
Just weeks before the U-turn, the Education Secretary gave the battle cry “there is no reverse gear when it comes to our education reforms”
Up against a government who were trying to give the impression they were digging in, the parents who questioned the need for this policy at their child’s already outstanding school, the head teachers, teachers and support staff who spoke out in the media or made their collective voice clear throughout their union conferences, and the local government leaders from all parties who articulated the negative impact it could have on their areas, all helped to demonstrate just how self-evidently flawed this policy was.
The scale and the breadth of the opposition to the Government’s plans even extended to Conservative Party MPs and grandees. Everyone who was part of the alliance to oppose this ill-thought out policy should be proud of the role that they played proving the Education Secretary wrong. It shows what can be achieved when we have a broad based alliance against this reckless government.
However, as the dust settles following the Government’s U-turn, it’s clear that the Tory Government’s misguided fixation with school structures remains. Essentially, they’re now committed to the end goal of “every school an academy”, without the legislation to achieve it. As a result, Ministers will continue to spend time, money and energy on forcing or coaxing schools to change their legal status, at the expense of focusing on raising standards.
Meanwhile in education policy there is chaos on a gigantic scale. After abandoning baseline assessment we had the publication of the Key Stage One test on the DfE website followed up by the leaking of the Key Stage 2 test days before children sat it. You really couldn’t make it up! And it’s not as though there aren't real issues to tackle like the teacher supply crisis or how schools will cope with an 8% cut in their budgets, the largest real terms cut in a very long time.
And sadly it will often be support staff jobs that are on the line. Those crucial jobs making a real difference to the lives of pupils and students that I listed earlier. They will often be the jobs under threat.
So you can help us the Labour team led by Lucy Powell the Shadow Secretary of State with Jenny Chapman leading on early years, Sharon Hodgson leading on Special Educational Needs, Gordon Marsden leading of FE, Mike Watson in the Lords and myself.
We aren't many so we need both your ideas to make our policies fit and strong.
And we need your early warning system to tell us what is happening on the ground because you are closest to the action in the real world and the sooner we know what’s happening the sooner we will be able to fight for what is right for you, for children, for parents and for the country.