Just before Christmas I received a message from the lovely Rohan one of the Labour Party Community Organisers for Yorkshire asking if I was available to be part of a group of parents and teachers to talk to Jeremy Corbyn about education concerns regarding forced academisation. During mat leave I got a couple of phone calls to talk to various people regarding different subjects (overcrowding on trains? Well I’ve got a cracking story about the time I fainted when pregnant due to heat and overcrowding). I’ve been tagged as a “key activist” to talk to – what an ego massage!
I quickly messaged several people I know – parents, teachers, retired teachers; the works. I wanted to get as many different people to share their experiences as possible. Obviously, the fact that JC was going to be there was a major pull factor. The event itself quickly grew and I was able to make sure that our little tribe was in the list for a round table discussion event which preceded the rally.
I made some notes over my concerns: (lack of choice, funding cuts for Art & Humanities and anything creative, stress levels, mental health support, SEN support, privatisation by the back door, schools turning into exam factories, data mining rather than love of a subject) and I also canvassed opinions from both primary and secondary teachers I know. We were keen to stress that although academies were originally a Labour policy for struggling secondary schools they were now a completely different beast and not for the better (in our experience).
Once the event was put on Facebook the whole thing just exploded and it seemed like very Tom, Dick and Harry was going to come and I was worried that we weren’t actually going to be able to talk about the subject at hand. There was also the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t even be able to make it – when you’re that high up if something kicks off you’ve got the to drop everything and go.
Jo was the Community Organiser for this event and she came round to show me how the event was going to run and I felt reassured at how it was going to work. I also absolutely doubley made sure that the people I’d persuaded to come were on ze list as they weren’t members from our area and all sorts of emails were flying around region spooking all the wrong people about how entry to the event was going to happen! During this meeting Jo asked if I would report back (with another parent) what was discussed at the round table in addition to 2 retired teachers speaking too. I was duly persuaded – it’s not every day you get the opportunity to share the stage with the leader of a political party!
When Jeremy arrived he listened to each table to hear their discussion points and what our concerns were. He listened attentively and took notes vociferously. He talked about Labour’s policy of their Proposed National Education Service. A service free at the point of use for everyone. There would be a ring fenced pupil premium for music (paid for by higher corporation tax) so that very child would have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Clearly music and the arts are important because they’re offered and pushed in private school but are first against the wall when budget cuts come to town for state schools and academies.
In the run up I was getting more and more nervous and very stressed and therefore weepy about the whole thing. I honestly didn’t know if I was up to it; would I do justice to our discussions? Would I completely fluff up and mangle my words? Fortunately, Jo had prepared some sentences that I could adapt so that made me feel much better.
When we arrived I could see how many chairs were being set up in the main hall and my stomach flipped. The last time I spoke in front of a large crowd was for Alexandra for her eulogy (cue feeling very weepy again) but I gave myself a good talking to – if I can do that for her then I needed to pull up my big girl panties and do this. And so I did.
During the Girlguiding Centenary year we were encouraged to think of and remember our mountain top moments – this was very definitely one of the biggest mountain top moments. I was so proud of myself for conquering my fears – I even cracked some jokes. I spoke clearly and remembered to not have the mic too near my mouth. I got a really big round of applause and I felt so chuffed; I’m still on a high.
Once Victoria and I spoke, Deanne Ferguson our Parliamentary candidate spoke and then it was time for the rabble rousing speech from Jeremy. Honestly, I was blown away – I never thought I’d be that inspired by a middle aged bearded white man! I may not agree with everything he says (– I’m a proud Remainer and think Brexit is shower of $£$^&%^&%$£ and I feel that Labour need to do more to improve their image that they’re somehow anti-business when the policies that are in development are anything but); I came away feeling that I should get involved and I can help to make a difference.
After the speeches I was ushered into the original round table room and I was able to pounce on Deanne and Jeremy about the subject of bereaved parents. I quickly explained my background. I pressed upon them both that the Bereaved Parents Bill was good and that it needed to stay and be strengthened. I got bereavement pay on top of my maternity leave pay but that was because my boss the time was nice – I wasn’t legally entitled to it. He was brilliant in the way he listened to me and knew the name of the MP who was working this and told Deanne to make sure that my concerns were relayed back to them. The fact that he knew straight away who was working on this subject and that it was actually being thought of just made my day. I know it’s his job but at no point did I feel I was being paid lip service or being fobbed off.
All in all it was a great experience and I’m glad I did it.
Below are some of the themes that I gathered from my opinion finding and then following that are the speeches from Victoria and I and the retired teachers that spoke. It’s not verbatim as we added things due to nerves and thinking on our feet!
Views from a secondary teacher:
I am VERY concerned about academisation. Even though at my school it has been done in the best way, i.e. setting up a Community Education Trust, so that it is not owned by a massive company, it is still out of the loop. We no longer have LEA meetings or advisers or LEA heads of faculty meetings. Everything happens in the Trust Bubble and it reflects the ethos of unelected Trustees NOT elected councils. That for me is a huge democratic deficit.
Furthermore, it has disempowered teachers massively. The governors used to have teacher reps on: no more. Union representation is now MUCH more low key. Wages are not nationally set and there is more secrecy over who earns what and I suspect a lot of gerrymandering takes place (not crooked but ‘if your face fits, here’s an allowance’) True the Trust isn’t bound by the national Curriculum but Ofsted sets the pace for ALL decisions so we have totally unsuitable courses for children, with very low ability students being forced onto EBACC courses and the Arts, and Craft subjects ground down.
AND we are seeing good staff taken from one academy and parachuted into another. It has had a terrible effect on behaviour as our best behaviour managers are in other schools, as are our best leaders. Management has moved to the disused middle school buildings at one of our primary sites and god knows what happens there.
The main problem is underfunding and terrible pressure on teachers to give meaningful data that shows steady improvement year on year. Education doesn’t work like that and we are measuring what can be measured, not what is important. I am training children to pass exams not educating them in how to think and be contributing citizens. Not all of this comes from academisation, but by creating a market of big sharks ready to take over smaller ‘failing’ institutions at the drop of a hat, academisation has brought the perils of privatisation.
It has also made parents and children ‘customers’ and that has brought a sense of arrogance and entitlement that eats into wellbeing and destroys children’s’ resilience. We are expected to be contactable 24/7, liable for little freddie’s tantrums, able to predict accurately what a Y9 will get in a Y11 exam in three years’ time and held to stupid targets.
Speeches from the day
Hello Morley & Outwood! I’m Claire, and this is Victoria. We’re both mothers of young children living in the area.
Before you all arrived today, we got together with 50 local parents and teachers from all over our constituency for a roundtable discussion – sharing stories and nailing down the specific issues caused by school cuts and academisation here in Morley and Outwood.
Because Jeremy’s not like other politicians, he came along to listen to us and help us build a plan to change things. He actually took notes! (Jeremy waved his notebook as proof – lots of laughing!)
One thing that’s clear is that we need to see real change for our children’s education in this constituency. Some of the most common issues discussed were concerns over mental health, schools turning into exam factories and funding cuts.
The most striking story for me was a child being put into isolation over the wrong coloured pen.
As local parents ourselves, this opportunity was so important to us because it showed us we’re not alone. Ophelia is at a childminder rather than nursery as she’s got 13 years of instutionalisation ahead of her – why give her any more?
I volunteer with Girlguiding and our girls are age 14-18; they come into Rangers shaking with stress. They then start to quit their extracurricular activities to spend more time on school work but in reality they end up brining out.
But this afternoon we came together and signed up to training later this month, to plan how to make our vision for local change a reality. The fight for better education conditions for our children starts right here, today, in Outwood Memorial Hall. Victoria is one of the people who will be with us.
To me, when anything becomes about profit rather than people, it ends up reducing the things that are important to us into targets and figures.
My son’s only 6, but these days at that age it’s already so intensely about maths and English that he’s constantly expected to be writing. I’ve looked it up, and young boys aren’t meant to be at that stage of their development until at least 7 years old. This along with no longer being allowed an afternoon break due to SATs means that he dreads going to school.
But the thing is, while he’s actually doing well at school, he still cries with anxiety on a regular basis because, he’s so terrified of making mistakes with his work.
What’s the one task that you never expect to make a child cry? Well, before the Christmas break he was distressed to the point that he couldn’t sleep because he had to write a letter to Santa and he didn’t want to get it wrong. I was in his room for 2 hours trying to soothe him, and it was so bad that I didn’t want to send him in the next day, but obviously I had to – few parents of children at academies like his want to face an attendance issue. Morley Newland Academy has an Outstanding Ofsted rating – but to me, for a child of 6 to dread going to school to write a letter to Santa is a sign that something isn’t working.
Just recently he came home distressed as he had witnessed, along with the rest of the class, one of his friends having their work ripped out of their books due to their writing not being neat enough. Apparently this happens regularly. He himself has been made to repeat the same piece of work 3 times in one session which, he has found very stressful and upsetting.
I have felt powerless to react to situations like this, because as a single mum on benefits you feel really vulnerable taking on large institutions to hold them account – but what really makes me angry is noticing this as a wider problem, that other parents around me are nervous to come together as a larger group and fight for an alternative, because of the different ways that living under a Conservative government prevents us from fighting back.
So I’m joining with other parents, teachers, and individuals worried about the education system in Morley and Outwood, and we’re going to fight for tangible local change through the Labour Party. We also stand ready, the minute a general election is called, to come out in force and turn our constituency red.
We know that teams like ours are the kind of grassroots power that could make or break our chance to win a Labour government: so when the opportunity comes later today, make a commitment like we did and sign up to support our fight in the coming weeks. Thank you.
Nicola & Colin – retired teachers.
I am Nicola Harrison, a retired teacher of English with over 30 years’ experience and I have lived in this area all my life. My grandmother and her sisters worked in local mills; my grandfather, father and uncles were colliers. Seeing how the area has changed, how its industries have been destroyed by Conservative governments over the years has been heart breaking. Now it seems that my own field, the education system, is their target – and with that our children and grandchildren.
My husband, Colin, moved into the area from Essex in 1971 but he has acclimatised! He worked in education throughout his working life, mainly in secondary schools and finally in teacher training at Leeds Beckett University.
Although we both had been lifelong supporters of the Labour Party, we did not become members until we retired 4 years ago. This was further driven by the election of a Conservative MP, the first time either of us had been represented by a Tory and in an area which, traditionally had upheld Labour values, particularly regarding workers’ rights and equality for all.
I saw many changes throughout my career; the academies of today are no longer those envisaged by the Labour Party when they were introduced.
The development of academies has led to them becoming businesses where cash is king and where head teachers are rumoured to be paid salaries in the hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.
Many feel that children and young people’s mental health provision has reached crisis point and there have been repeated calls for a counsellor to be in every school. At one time in my career you would have seen upwards of a quarter of staff in any high school who had some training in counselling; who were able to offer support to youngsters in need and who knew where to go next. That could be as many as 20 teachers at any one time. Countless children benefitted from this; those with problems with school work, with friends and with families; those struggling to care for someone at home and those struggling to care for themselves.
In addition there would have been Education Welfare Officers on site who offered support to both children and their families. These have been replaced by administrative staff whose jobs are largely to chase attendance.
Since academies have been given financial independence, the Local Education Authorities, who provided such training, have diminished and in-service training for teachers has largely disappeared; what there is, is provided in house and focuses on the academic in the main as the pressure on teachers is to achieve results against largely arbitrary measures handed down from on high.
In the early 2000s I witnessed how the “Every Child Matters” agenda led to increased emphasis on early intervention through Sure Start and ensuring that agencies properly worked together. This had a significant impact particularly in providing support for vulnerable pupils and families. I worked with a multi-agency team to re-engage a lone parent of 3 children. The team involved education, social work, housing, child mental health and community support. Of the 3 children ranging from 13 to 5, only the older child had received any education. Working together we were able to secure appropriate housing, family support and the children were engaged in education. Sadly, the advent of academies and the associated lack of finding for local authorities have meant that these initiatives have been lost.
This type of intervention is not a priority for schools whose budgets have been cut in real terms despite the Conservative headline of increased funding for education.
Local authorities have responsibility for children with SEN and who experience difficulties in school but funding is limited so crucial early intervention cannot be put in place.
We, like most of you here, have benefitted from a completely free education which arose out of the Labour movement, for our children university fees were introduced; it is hard to envisage what the situation will be for our grandchildren and great grandchildren but we need to work together to effect a change. Seeing the problem is easy, we need to work together to find the solutions.
Today’s event isn’t just an opportunity to talk about the change we want to see, but to organise to make it happen. We’re signing up campaign for real change in Morley & Outwood because as former teachers, as parents and grandparents, we have a duty to say that enough is enough – by campaigning locally about education and by making sure that Deanne Ferguson is our Labour MP after the next election.