Investment in teachers must be at the heart of Labour’s education policy offer

Natasa Pantelic

As I watched Nadhim Zahawi ask former teachers to return to the workforce on December 20th last year, I knew the recruitment crisis must be serious – and therefore impacting the quality of education in our schools. I listened carefully to what he said: “I am asking any teachers no longer in the profession to come forward if they are available to temporarily fill absences in schools and colleges in the New Year. Anyone who thinks they can help should go to the Get Into Teaching website to get started with the process.”

I couldn’t stand the thought of children not receiving an education, so I signed up and returned to the classroom. Last week, NEU data revealed that 44% of teachers plan to leave the profession by 2027 as heavy workloads impact on their ability to do their jobs. This is a shocking statistic to some – but for teachers, it isn’t a surprise.

I gained qualified teacher status in 2013 having secured the last place on the graduate teacher programme in Slough. It was an exciting time filled with possibility. I learned so much from senior leaders around me and spending time in schools almost immediately set me up for success. After nearly four years of teaching, I decided to leave. A narrow curriculum, spending too much time drilling children for tests and working non-stop meant that I wanted to get out and change the system.

I started working for an education network (Whole Education), facilitating professional development opportunities for school leaders, taking them out to countries like Canada and Sweden to bring back the best teaching and learning practices to their schools. Giving teachers the opportunity to grow and learn is an important part of continual professional development in the sector. We need buckets of it to help retain and nurture those that take care of our children.

Not much has changed in the time I’ve been out of the classroom. 12 years of Tory government have delivered a knowledge-rich curriculum that isn’t preparing young people with the skills for the modern world. A lack of teachers is forcing many schools to be heavily reliant on agency staff – children are telling me a constant change in teachers makes it difficult to learn – and it was reported in 2020 that more teachers are suffering from long-lasting mental health problems. The pandemic has made problems worse, with the constant pressures of staff absences evident every time I walk back into a school setting. The talk in the staffroom is often of the pressure in the job and working on the weekends. We need to make things better.

Yesterday, the Education Secretary appeared before the education committee following the publication of the government’s schools white paper and SEND green paper at the end of last month. Committee chair Robert Halfon picked up on the white paper overlooking the importance of skills in schools in favour of a “knowledge-rich curriculum”. I completely agree.

We cannot rely on knowledge alone and must be teaching children how to apply skills so that they are receiving a rounded education – developing their qualities such as creativity and ability to show empathy, as well as wider skills such as oracy, enquiry and financial awareness. Our education system is geared towards standardised testing and moves children according to age rather than stage. Reform is needed if we are to truly prepare young people for the modern world and jobs for the future. But we need the workforce to do it.

Labour’s Children’s Recovery Plan sets out some of our ambitions for children and teachers in the post-Covid world. It’s imperative we go much further in our policy offer for the next general election. I believe we need to develop a workforce of people who are celebrated, valued and supported to include people from different backgrounds to teach and support the skills our young people need. We need a curriculum that develops their skills, qualities and knowledge for life, learning and work, using enquiry as a foundation for learning.

Our policy proposals should include a radical teacher recruitment, training, retention and development plan. We need to make sure training programmes have proper modules on teaching children with special educational needs, supporting teachers with their mental health and wellbeing and allowing flexibility in the way they work so they’re not bogged down with paperwork and constant performance targets. I am a huge champion of building networks too – there is value in building communities of practice regionally and nationally.

Our curriculum proposals should also be bold and outward-looking, developing growth mindsets – brought to light by researchers like Professor Carol Dweck – and embedded in enquiry-based learning. This approach has been shown to build resilience in our young people and narrow attainment gaps for disadvantaged learners. Just look at the higher performing education systems around the world – such as in British Columbia – to see the outcomes.

Finally, we need to be ambitious in working with the business community to ensure the skills and life experiences on offer to our young people are preparing them for the jobs of the future. We are using technology in primary schools for short activities, for example, but what about supporting the depth of learning our young people need and extending that learning to research, group activities and making sure all children have access to technology at home? We need to invest in the workforce that’s preparing our next generation of leaders.

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