Thursday, 16 October 2014

Caroline Lucas ensures powerful teacher voices are heard in Parliament

It is unusual these days to have speeches in Parliament fully reported. Today I am making an exception because I feel the issues raised by Caroline Lucas in her adjournment debate on education on Tuesday were so important. Please do read on after the text break.

This evening I want to pay tribute to the incredible work being done in schools in Brighton and Hove. Last year the city’s young people got their best ever GSCE results. This year the key stage 2 results were in the top quarter in the country and 54% of A-level students got A* to B grades, an improvement in results for the third year running. Brighton and Hove was also named top local authority in the country for tackling homophobia in schools. That really is a track record to be proud of, so I want to applaud the many teachers and other staff who make such achievements possible.

However, those achievements have been reached in spite of Government policy, not because of it. Research from the National Union of Teachers reveals the extent to which Ministers have been taking teachers for granted. The NUT found that 87% of teachers said that they know one or more teachers who have left the profession because of work load; that 90% of teachers have themselves considered leaving the profession because of work load; and that 96% said their work load has had negative consequences for their family or personal life.

Tonight I want to do two things: first, to share some of what I have been told by local teachers about the daily reality behind those statistics, and to ask the Department of Education and the Secretary of State to start listening to teachers and to review their current policies; and secondly, to make the case for statutory PSHE—personal, social, health and economic education—teaching in all state-funded schools. I have a private Member’s Bill before the House designed to achieve exactly that. I very much welcome the Minister’s views on that proposal.

On the experience of local teachers, I would like to quote extensively from what they have told me, because it is important that the Minister hears their words directly and that those words are put on the parliamentary record. One teacher told me:
“I am a 29 year old teacher who has taught for three years.  I have a first class degree in English and enjoy being in the classroom.  However, I am likely going to leave the profession at the end of this year as I find the workload overwhelming.”
One retired teacher said this:
“Right up to my last day I was in school at 7.00-7.15 am and did not leave till I was thrown out by the caretaker at 6.00 pm—dragging bags of planning or marking etc with me to complete at home. When I worked full time I also worked every Sunday afternoon and evening. Some of this was on tasks I felt were important for my teaching but latterly most of the work was on required tasks that I just could not fit into my 5 X 10-11 hour days!!!”
She goes on to say that one of the many downsides is that valuable clubs and after-school activities are at risk of being abandoned because teachers simply cannot fit them in, as much as they would like to.

Teaching is hard work. As one teacher put it to me:
“If we get education wrong, it impacts on all other areas of society and we cannot allow this to happen for the sake of our children and country’s future.”
The teachers I meet are not afraid of this hard work—indeed, they relish it—but they are frustrated by what they see as the unnecessary burdens imposed on them which conspire to make a tough job far tougher. A particular bugbear, which is at the heart of the issues about work load, is that, in their view, there is far too much testing and far too many targets. Here is what one teacher has to say:
“We are in real danger of turning schools into exam factories. In my five years of teaching, I have noted a marked increase in the amount of assessment required in the class to the detriment of lesson content, practicals and innovative lessons. A number of times already this academic year, I have had to cancel planned lessons in order to generate meaningless data to populate spreadsheets for senior members of staff. While assessment and feedback are a mandatory element of learning, I believe that the learning experience should be inspirational and innovative while promoting creativity and yet constant streams of testing go against this.”
The issue of constant changes and the lack of an evidence-based approach is another recurring theme. 

One teacher who has been in the profession for five years told me:
“My problem is that it feels like constant meddling with a system that has not had chance to properly test an idea.  It feels like being a football manager who has to get yearly results each lesson otherwise he will be sacked.”
There is also deep concern about what lies behind the constant new policy initiatives, with many teachers arguing that the Department for Education has lost sight of its primary purpose. One told me:
“Despite being an ‘outstanding’ advanced skills maths teacher incredibly passionate about making learning maths engaging and relevant I have left the classroom, which saddens me daily. I love teaching and hope to one day return to the system when learning and children, rather than profit-making and Government agenda, is at the heart of our education system.”
The spectre of competition is always there, and performance-related pay, in particular, is adding insult to injury. One teacher writes:
“Most of us don’t want payment for results. We want a fair pay for a good job and poor teachers should be managed to get better or leave. Some teachers who are benefitting from performance related pay may see things differently, my niece in her second year of teaching was given a 25% rise or £5000 to keep her but even she says she cannot keep up the pace of work/amount of hours put in for long.”
Another local teacher says:
“What makes for the best outcomes with the children is teamwork—teachers working together for the good of the children. It is certainly not achieved through teachers being locked away in their classrooms desperately trying to push children up through the levels to ensure the security of their own future.
An OECD report from May 2012 called “Does performance-based pay improve teaching?” concluded:
“A look at the overall picture”—of OECD nations— “reveals no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes.”
That underscores what teachers are telling me, based on their experience of being in classrooms and of how best to help students fulfil their potential.

What strikes me most about the messages from teachers is that, despite all the difficulties they face, the vast majority remain convinced of the power of education to transform every young life. Indeed, it is the opportunity to help children and young people to engage, question and discover that keeps them going. Above all, the teachers I meet recognise that teaching should be about giving children a chance to succeed. As one teacher put it:
“We need to see an end to this misguided notion that children are all the same and will progress in exactly the same way. Teaching them this early on in life that they are failures because they have not made what the government deems satisfactory progress is criminal and fosters feelings of inadequacy. We already know that how children feel about learning has a huge bearing on how much progress they make in the future.”
He concluded:
“I’m not suggesting we don’t push and support children to be all that they can be, but the current system does not promote positive self esteem and positive attitudes to learning and it’s getting worse. I want to sew the seeds for lifelong learning in my classroom and not turn people off it because, as kids put it, they’re ‘no good’. Learners are not closed systems, but individuals affected by a wide range of factors; social, emotional and developmental.”
That teacher’s last point brings me on to the second issue I want to raise. PSHE may sound like a dry acronym, but behind the title lies a subject that is vital for all children. PSHE encompasses many issues—everything from teaching life-saving CPR, tackling homophobic language in schools, understanding how to be responsible with money, tackling a controversial news story that is trending on social media and sweeping around the playground, to discussing the difference between an abusive and a respectful relationship.

PSHE involves learning about relationships, respect and responsibilities. It has always been important, but children today are bombarded with information in ever evolving ways and what happens in the classroom simply is not keeping up. For example, the latest guidance on sex and relationships education—just one aspect of PSHE—was produced 14 years ago by the Department for Education, before the mass use of mobile phones, the internet and the rise of social media.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has shown that girls and boys are gleaning distorted and inaccurate information about sex and relationships via online porn. Children face issues such as sexting and the pressure to document their lives and relationships online and in chatrooms. Childline has found that 60% of 13 to 18-year-olds had been asked to share a sexual image or video of themselves. One in three girls say they experience groping or unwanted touching at school. Yet not all our children are getting a chance to learn how to negotiate this complex landscape of communication and information.

The horrors of children being raped and abused in Rotherham and elsewhere, yet ignored by those with the power to help them, have sickened all of us, as have the revelations about historical child abuse—an issue I have worked on with colleagues across the House, lobbying the Home Secretary for a robust inquiry into the cases. Good PSHE has a role to play in helping children learn how to stay safe, and that is why it has been flagged up by a number of studies on how to protect children.
Schools in Brighton and Hove, strongly backed by Brighton and Hove city council, have been working to deliver outstanding PSHE, and their work is truly inspiring. For example, Patcham high school in my constituency has adopted a whole-school approach to PSHE, backed by the full commitment of the head and staff. It is a core part of the school’s ethos. The young people at Patcham learn to debate and discuss sensitive and difficult subjects,with each other and their teachers, in an extremely thoughtful and intelligent way. Difficult issues such as mental ill-health, emotional bullying and relationship abuse are discussed, using creative and engaging teaching tools. The school facilitates pupils’ consideration of complicated issues and, crucially, helps them to think for themselves. There is no brushing of important and controversial matters under the carpet and hoping for the best. The positive impact of this approach on the students shines through.
Yet this quality of PSHE is not available to all children. Ofsted’s most recent PSHE report, “Not yet good enough”, found that PSHE teaching required improvement in no fewer than 40% of schools. A PSHE Association survey of 40 local authority leads suggests that 52% of teachers—more than half of them—are not adequately trained in PSHE, and that they are not getting the help they need to make improvements. Statutory status is therefore key. As long as PSHE remains a non-statutory and non-examined subject, with a low priority in the Ofsted framework, there will be virtually no coverage of PSHE in teacher training. In school, PSHE teachers are not given the curriculum time or training that they need.

Those are the reasons why I have presented a private Member’s Bill, which is before the House, to make teaching PSHE a statutory requirement in all state-funded schools. Since presenting the Bill, I have found widespread support for this principle. Teachers want PSHE. There is strong backing from the teaching unions, including the NAHT, which represents head teachers. Statutory PSHE is not seen as a burden, but as something that helps. Teachers need and want access to good training and support to deliver quality PSHE across a range of topics, and statutory PSHE would provide that.

Parents, too, want PSHE. To take the example of sex and relationship education again, 88% of the parents of school-aged pupils want age-appropriate SRE to be taught in schools. YouGov and the PSHE Association have found that 90% of parents believe schools should teach children about mental health and emotional well-being. Young people want PSHE. Members of the UK Youth Parliament are among those who have repeatedly made that clear.

This subject is not as controversial as it perhaps once was. The tide is changing. Members may remember that TheTelegraph has run the excellent Wonder Women campaign for better sex education. One of the reasons that there is such strong backing for statutory PSHE from both heads and teachers is that it has the potential to aid academic success and employability. All children deserve a curriculum that promotes resilience, physical and mental health and life skills, and one that teaches about equality. My Bill is about an entitlement for all children and about ensuring that teachers have access to the training, resources and support they need to teach this vital subject according to their students’ particular needs. It is about listening to teachers and benefiting from their insight into what works in our schools.

I very much appreciate the fact that the Minister has listened to me, and I look forward to his response on everything I have said about how teachers are now under such enormous pressures in our schools and on whether he can indicate any support for my Bill.

Before I finish, I want to do one last and perhaps rather unorthodox thing, Mr Speaker, which is to share a few verses from a poem by a local poet, Ros Barber, who is also very involved with the teaching profession. What she writes in the three stanzas I will read sums up what is at stake in education today. Teachers up and down the country, and certainly in my constituency in Brighton and Hove, have a real concern, which I hope I have conveyed, that creativity is being squeezed out of our schools by endless testing and assessment. That is something that we need to review and act on. The poem says:
“I believe that a British state education is the best in the world.
How else can a love of reading be learned than by
never immersing a child in a whole book but rather chopping
powerful and moving stories into meaningless chunks
of text contained within the safe bounds of Literacy Hour.
I believe that a British state education is the best in the world.
That children should be taught to the test and only
what they need to make the school look good, for better
that a school is seen to perform well in the league tables
than that a child retain any natural curiosity or love of learning.
I believe that a British state education is the best in the world.
What better way to teach your citizens that life is a trial
than abandon creativity, load ten year olds with homework,
stretch the school day? Existence is too short to waste childhood
in climbing trees, in games, in unstructured play.”

I very much hope that that is not the future for our schools, but I very much fear that that will be a vision of schools in this country unless the Government change direction, start listening to teachers and, crucially, allow teachers to teach.


  1. Thank you for this, Martin and Caroline.

    I wish to add briefly my experience as an adult with a learning difficulty who gained a grounding in basic literacy in the early 1960's via being put back a year to catch up after three months off school inuced by stress-related acute rheumatoid arthritis at age 8. Through learning to read and write and have home access to encyclopaedias, I became more of an independent learner, geared to discovery rather than allowing myself to be put down by test results.

    Many years later (ca 1998 to 2009) I had further support from my mum via a home PC that she paid for and access to training manuals to get me beyond the ever diminishing value per participant in government-funded training schemes. (In June 2000 a training charity admitted to me that their 6 week period for a Web Design course was inadequate for the amount of course content, but the Blair Govt had instructed them to halve the length of the training period so as to double the throughput. It had already taken me years of dedicated home study to pass their entry test. That year the Government said they would introduce special 'Green Card' immigration status for people from abroad with special skills including Web Design.)

    I could go on further, including how I went on to coach others in the skills I had acquired and given up on the prospect of becoming a teacher of adults, but this is a comment space rather than a blog initself. For now I'll just state that for me, SMART (Simple, Measurable, Achieveable, Time-limited and Realistic) objectives in education too frequently translate as Spurious, Managerial, Arbitrary, Random & Terminal.

    Swheatie of the KUWG
    Now on ESA as unfit to work in the world as it is.

    PS: Please change the existing link for SRE to this url:

  2. Very good indeed, These are precisely the skills children need to help them to adjust to life. The teachers need them too. I have seen many dedicated teachers with depression and anxiety leave the profession or be bullied out of it through top down micro-management. This is an important step forward.