Election 2024

Fixing 14 years of damage must be an election priority

This election is a watershed moment for education. An incoming Government must recognise the scale of the problems, says Daniel Kebede

This election is a watershed moment for education. An incoming Government must recognise the scale of the problems, says Daniel Kebede

23 May 2024, 12:19

It is no exaggeration to say that after 14 years of damaging and unhelpful policies, education is at breaking point.

We are running on empty. The education system needs urgent attention from early years right through to post-16. This must be reflected in the manifestos of all the political parties.

The scale of the problem is immense and encroaches on all aspects of our education system. Everything from the undervalued workforce, through to the impoverished aspiration and provision for children and young people.

Look at the chronic underfunding of our nurseries, schools and colleges. 66 per cent of primary schools and 88 per cent of secondary schools now have less funding in real terms than in 2010. This soon filters through to the learning experience: school buildings falling apart, increased class sizes, reduced staff numbers, fewer subjects taught, and the loss of extra-curricular activities.

Lowering the education experience of children just to balance the books is an intolerable position to be in but one that is the daily dilemma for many schools.

This government’s most shameful record is on child poverty. A record 4.3 million children live in poverty, a million in destitution – unable to have their most basic needs met. Yet, somehow, Gillian Keegan persists with mendacious rhetoric about a ‘world-class’ education system.

The fact is that you can’t have record levels of child poverty and improving educational outcomes at the same time. Any teacher will tell you: poverty affects learning.

This, along with the crisis in school funding, is among the first challenges for an incoming government to confront. We need to see free school meals rolled out universally, but also an end to the barbaric two-child benefit cut. Such a change would lift 250,000 children out of deep poverty overnight. This is the ambition we need. 

Like never before, we will raise the voice of teachers and support staff

No party should overlook the parlous state of SEND provision and mental health support services in this country. Long waiting lists point to a system that is decimated or patchy at best.

And then there is the recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, which has continued unabated during the Conservatives’ time in office. The failure to meet teacher training targets, and the exodus of teachers, is scandalous. Talented people, driven out of the profession just a few years after graduation because of the intolerable levels of workload and the erosion of pay.

And on pay, Gillian Keegan is falling into her usual bad habits. Last year, following the sustained and principled action of our members in the face of a stubborn government, we won a pay deal and new money for schools. At that point the education secretary promised this year’s STRB process would be speedier.

Well, it has not been.

Earlier this week I joined the general secretaries of ASCL, NAHT and NASUWT in demanding the latest STRB report be released. It has been on her desk for at least a week and she is again squandering away the time schools have left to plan their budgets for next year.

We expect Gillian Keegan to set out a very small increase of one to two per cent in teacher pay, and she will now have the unenviable challenge of fronting this out during a general election. It is a manifesto commitment she will never be able to sell to teachers, and she would be wise to reflect on the short-changing that she and her successors have treated us to since 2010.

Fifty years ago, the Houghton committee reported on teacher pay. The NEU is calling for an independent commission in the same spirit, to finally get to grips with a situation that is clearly having a profoundly negative effect on both recruitment and retention.

To follow the long-term damage of 14 years in power, we need to see a long-term strategy that fixes the enormous problems facing the education system.

The National Education Union is not affiliated to any political party, and we do not tell members how to vote. Over the next few weeks we will demand serious commitments from the parties on education, and pointing out when they fall short.

Like never before, we will raise the voice of teachers and support staff in schools and colleges. The education of our children and young people is too important for simply more of the same.

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