Election 2024

‘While I teach history, I’m going to make history’: Meet the teachers standing for election

At least 25 candidates with teaching backgrounds are standing for election this year

At least 25 candidates with teaching backgrounds are standing for election this year

14 Jun 2024, 5:00

Long read

Education is not polling highly as a key election issue among voters, but for many teachers and former school workers it has inspired them into political action.

Schools Week speaks to the teachers standing for election next month…

‘Public services crisis makes me angry’

Following public searches, Schools Week could find 25 candidates with teaching backgrounds who are standing for election this year.

They join at least five former teachers who are already MPs and standing for re-election.

David Baines
David Baines

For primary school teacher David Baines, seeing the impact of austerity at first hand helped to inspire him into politics.

“Every day I’d see children coming into school hungry,” says Baines, who taught for eight years until 2013 and was leader of St Helens council until May.

“Sometimes I would be giving them bits from my lunch because they were coming in with nothing in their stomachs.”

Polls predict that he will win St Helens North, a safe Labour seat, quite comfortably.

Baines, whose wife is a teaching assistant, adds: “I’ve seen what’s happened for the last 14 years to public services and it breaks my heart and makes me angry.”

History and RSHE teacher Joe Emmett faces a much tighter fight in Hereford and South Herefordshire. 

Polls have Labour neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, who have won every election in the seat since 2010.

Joe Emmett
Joe Emmett

“While I teach history, I’m going to make history,” says Emmett, a teacher for two decades. “I’m swapping one classroom for – let’s face it – parliament is an unruly classroom isn’t it.”

Emmett made headlines last year after introducing sessions on misogyny at Fairfield High School, in Hereford.

He backs Labour’s curriculum review, saying the current one is “too suffocating, I don’t think it’s inspiring enough”. 

“My line is always that school and learning is meant to be enjoyable not endured,” he adds. “I think we have too much of the endured really. It doesn’t sparkle enough.” 

While campaigning, he has still also got the important job of organising the school’s prom.

Ed sec hobby horses

Former science and PSHE teacher Allison Gardner also has a battle on her hands in Stoke-on-Trent South, where Labour has a slim lead according to polls.

Allison Gardner
Allison Gardner

She taught in Leeds and Halifax for six years before moving to Spain to teach the English curriculum in an international college. 

Gardner realised that “politics can matter” after cabinet reshuffles when new education secretaries brought in their “hobby horse” ideas into schools. 

One memory of teaching that sticks with her is of when a “talented and bright” young girl in Halifax had a “really hard” home life.

“I just saw that child was not getting the support she needed. I always think about her,” she says. 

After teaching, Gardner specialised in artificial intelligence in her PhD and became the NHS’ senior scientific adviser for AI. 

During the past year, the government has been promoting safe use of the technology in schools, including helping with workloads. 

Amanda Martin
Amanda Martin

“I’m very pro it, but the governance has to be absolutely right and staff need to be trained on the risks as well as the benefits of AI,” says Gardner, who also wants to see more girls getting into STEM careers and help fix the SEND crisis. 

Eyes are also on Portsmouth North, where former primary school teacher of 24 years Amanda Martin is in with a chance of beating Penny Mordaunt, the Conservative leader of the House of Commons.

“I think teachers don’t realise the large skill set that they have in the classroom and the difficulties, highs and lows that they go through on a daily basis,” says Martin, who most recently taught at St Jude’s in the city.

She says child poverty has had a “massive impact” on schools – turning them into food and clothes banks and family support units.

‘Teachers focusing on teaching’

At least five teacher candidates, including those re-running for seats, trained through Teach First. One of these is Labour’s Josh MacAlister, the favourite to become the next MP in Whitehaven and Workington. 

MacAlister taught citizenship for three years before founding social work training charity Frontline. He led the 2022 independent review of children’s social care. 

He wants to “tackle educational inequality and the disadvantage faced by children growing up in care”.

“We need to help teachers and schools focus on teaching because they’ve had to do so much to pick up the slack from challenges in children’s social care and mental health services,” he says.

Alistair Strathern is contesting the Hitchin seat, having been elected as the first Labour MP in Mid Bedfordshire in a by-election in October.

He completed Teach First before teaching maths for two years at Stewards Academy in Harlow until 2013. 

He saw the “early signs” of funding decisions in the coalition years. It was “a deep source of frustration to see the very real impact that was having,” he says.

Strathern also points to the SEND crisis in Hertfordshire and says that any reform needs to “pool together around the child rather than sitting stakeholders in increasingly quite adversarial silos”.

‘Education was my route out of poverty’

It is unlikely that any of the Conservatives with a teaching background will win their prospective seats. Of the four, David Thomas, candidate in Norwich South, is probably the best known. 

A former maths teacher and Teach First alumni, Thomas worked as a policy adviser at the DfE before joining the charity Axiom Maths as its chief executive.

The others include Dover and Deal hopeful Stephen James, a former primary teacher from Kent who during the pandemic set up the “Invicta Academy” online school.

James said he was inspired to go into politics because education “was my route out of poverty growing up on a council estate in South Wales”.

He said the Conservative Party and its policies “have overall improved education in England”, and the “commitment to improving education drives my political ambitions and reinforces my dedication to serving my community”.

“In my view, the biggest problem facing education is the lack of leadership from within the profession itself.”

He wants to see the Chartered College of Teaching taking a “greater role in solving problems, rather than teaching unions”.

“It is crucial that professionals deliver improvements based on evidence, not ideology. The role of government should be limited to setting strategic direction, leaving implementation to the professionals.”

‘I want to be at forefront of Tory change’

Peter Cartridge, a primary school teacher of 18 years, is the Conservative candidate in Lancaster and Wyre, where he already serves as a councillor. He currently teaches at Carr Head Primary School, in Poulton-le-Fylde.

Peter Cartridge
Peter Cartridge

“I’m very much a progressive Conservative,” he says. “I think we’re coming to an interesting era in politics where the Conservative party will change. I want to be at the forefront of that.”

He fears the rise of the far right across Europe and wants his party to be “very much in the centre ground”.

Cartridge believes teacher retention is among the biggest issues that the next government will have to tackle. 

“I can’t say I deserve an inflation-busting pay rise… there are a lot of people worse off at the moment. When I went into education, it was never for the money.

“It’s one of those careers which gives back to you. You can go home at the end of the day and think, ‘I made a real difference there’.”

But he does disagree with the Conservative government’s policy of single-word Ofsted grades, adding: “I think one word is just too simplistic.”

Cartridge is also concerned about Labour’s plans to levy VAT on private school fees, which he warns could have a “knock-on effect” on state schools and affect parental choice.

‘Can’t keep pushing SEND down the road’

Five election candidates for the Liberal Democrats have teaching backgrounds.

Assistant principal Cheney Payne could win in Cambridge, if the 12-point gap with Labour narrows, but the rest look set to lose. 

Maths teacher Colin Martin, standing for the Lib Dems in South East Cornwall, says he would focus on the “ticking time-bomb” of SEND funding.

Martin, who is polling in fourth, adds that moving to proportional representation – rather than first past the post – would allow “more scope for politicians or even small parties who want to focus on a particular issue to get attention and people into parliament”.

“For instance, you could have the special educational needs support party, or a families of SEN party. They could get a few per cent of the vote across the country under PR – meaning you would have MPs in parliament committed to these issues.”

Vix Lowthion

Meanwhile Lincoln candidate Clare Smalley, who has worked at Monks Abbey as a teacher and teaching assistant for over two decades, says more support for early years is “incredibly important”. 

On the Isle of Wight, the Green candidates for the island’s two seats are colleagues at Medina College. It is unlikely that either will win. 

Vix Lowthion, standing for the east of the island, is the party’s education spokesperson and teaches history, classics and geology.

She says the “number one issue that I see now is poverty…[and] the repercussions on housing, and health, and all of that which you just see on a daily basis – and they are the kids in my secondary school.”

We could not find any Reform UK party candidates with teaching backgrounds.

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