John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
This year’s Labour conference looked very much like our own has since the 1980s. No more composite motions and referrals back, no Neil Kinnock standing before a baying mob, no more block votes. Instead, a four-day party political broadcast that let the leadership set out its stall, milk the applause, and carry on recruiting.
Apart from Corbyn, the stars were the education spokeswoman, Angela Rayner, and the Labour youth organiser for the North-West, Lauren Stocks. Underneath all of the “presentation”, Ms Rayner had one substantial point, in the help she had received as a single parent from her local Sure Start children’s centre, part of a Labour programme that has been substantially cut, and that she promised to restore. This is the first piece of solid evidence I’ve seen on this programme, and reflects the experience of another user I know, who was helped by a centre to deal with an abusive partner.
Ms Stocks’ twitter identity is @nowherestocks, where she describes herself as “a human garbage can”. The main theme of her speech was young people’s mental health, which she saw as suffering from the new GCSEs in maths and English.
From my experience of helping young people through the morass of Labour’s incessant coursework, with their constant resits’ widespread fraud, she has identified the wrong source of a real problem. Ms Stocks’ estimate of as many as half of her schoolmates experiencing severe stress and anxiety may well be accurate, but the real problem is that they have been left without the knowledge, skills, and understanding that they need in order to equip them for further study or for work.
The 16-year-old I had to teach the two times table this year was certainly suffering from stress, but the cause of it was the people who had failed to teach him maths. I have similar concern for Ms Stocks herself – no-one should see themselves as garbage can or a nowhere person. I hope Labour look after her better than we looked after some of our young people under Grant Shapps.
Justine Greening’s thoughtful speech opening our conference addressed real issues, some of them well-known – the number of young people, including students, who voted Labour – and others that are too rarely mentioned. Raising the repayment threshold for debt is an immediate sweetener for young people under pressure, though it does not tackle the underlying issues of the interest rate, and when it kicks in, or the level of fees, which could have done without the recent £250 increase. I’m not sure, either, about the idea that a limit on numbers represents a denial of opportunity.
Did the degree in football studies from Southampton represent a real opportunity for Nick Timothy’s barber, for example? There was also a good quote from a recent Radio 4 afternoon play. “Why should I go to university? – To get a good job. – Why should I get a good job? – To pay for going to university”. We are going to have to do a lot better if we want these young people to vote for us.
The first of her other substantial points concerned the continuing professional development of teachers. Every modern profession requires its members to continue training beyond their initial qualification, and teaching is no exception.
Typically enough, Labour diverted this into its own agenda, requiring teachers seeking promotion to sign up to its “management of change” dogma by attending propaganda sessions for the ideas of Ed Balls and David Bell, following which they were deemed qualified – I almost wrote “certifiable” – for headships. Conservative ministers have cut most of this, but have not replaced it with proper training. The private sector understands the need to keep its teachers stimulated and up to date, and so should state schools, some of which have no training budget at all.
The second concerns children at the bottom of the system, in what is called “alternative provision,” almost always because their behaviour prevents other pupils from learning, or causes them or their teachers physical harm. I was involved in the inspection of several such schools in the 1990s.
The best of them were caring, thoughtful and effective, but the worst were out of the lower depths. Several could not keep pupils in the classroom, tolerated swearing at, and even physical assault of, staff, including young women teaching assistants, on the grounds of “inclusion”, and at times acted as exchange centres for stolen goods. I contributed to several reports that led to the closure of such schools, often in the teeth of complaints from those responsible for them, but this did not ensure proper provision for the children.
Where would they go? Justine Greening showed real courage in raising this issue at a Conservative conference – you’d never hear of it at a Labour one – and she deserves all of our support as she works to improve the situation.