Stephen Twigg – 2012 Speech to ATL Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, to the ATL Conference on 3rd April 2012.

Good afternoon and thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

It’s great to be here with Mary and the rest of the team. The ATL has a proud history in standing up for the rights of female teachers in particular, ever since a small group of women teachers stood together in the late 19th Century. You have been and will continue to be a voice of authority; a hand of support; and a champion for excellent teaching. So I thank you for the hard work that you are all doing in schools and colleges across the country.

I can well remember my last visit to ATL Conference.

It was in Bournemouth in 2004 when I was the Schools Minister. Some of the veterans among you might recall an encounter I had.

At the press conference after my speech, I was approached by a teacher about a national pay scale for support staff in schools – an issue I will come back to later in my remarks. The teacher – Mr Bevan – was fairly forcefully putting forward the case of his wife, a teaching assistant called Marion. As you might imagine, the press had a field day. ‘Minister berated after bathing in the warm applause from conference floor’ ran the story. ‘As he was about to make it to the door’, reports ran, ‘he came face-to-face with an unlikely political assassin.’

In a twist to the tale, it turned out that the Mr Bevan was in fact married to the same Marion who polled ahead of me in the 1983 mock General Election at Southgate Comprehensive School.

Standing as the Conservative candidate, Marion polled two places above me, as I experienced my first taste of electoral defeat as a Labour candidate.

It wouldn’t be the last time I would have to suffer embarrassment at the hands of the Conservatives in Southgate.

But things have moved on.

Since my appointment last October, I have spent a great deal of time in schools across the country, learning about the innovative practices that are being employed by education leaders, at all levels of school and in all types of schools.

If you listen to the Government, you would sometimes think that good practice only exists in free schools and academies. Now, I am unapologetic about the success that the academies Labour set up have enjoyed. Raising standards in some of the poorest neighbourhoods. But if we cherry pick certain schools, we will never raise standards for all.

We all have a duty to celebrate success in education – as well as challenging under-performance where it exists and being uncompromising on standards.

It is a widely shared view that we currently have the best ever generation of teachers. But we cannot rest. Building on these foundations, we have to ensure the next generation of teachers is even stronger if we are to maintain our international competitiveness.

Yet too much of the debate is weighted towards doing down the teaching profession.

There is a paradox at the heart of the education debate. Ministers criticise teachers for not raising standards.

Yet their answer is to change the governance structures of school.

Why not address the real challenge – how to raise the status and quality of teaching in this country?

I have said this before – it matters far more what classroom you are in, than what school you are in.

There is fantastic practice happening up and down the country. The challenge is to spread this best practice, while giving teachers the freedom to innovate and inspire.

So today, I want to address this challenge head on.

Unfortunately, being in opposition does not afford me the luxury of setting government policy. But it does provide the space in which to reflect on Labour’s record, on the challenges ahead and to hold the government to account on the decisions that it makes. With my colleagues in the Shadow Education Team we are conducting a wide ranging review into our policies to ensure they are fit for future challenges.

I have asked each of our shadow ministers in the Commons to look at a specific area.

So Kevin Brennan is looking at the National Curriculum;

Sharon Hodgson at Special Educational Needs;

Karen Buck at Youth Services; and Catherine McKinnell at adoption and looked after children.

Along with Bev Hughes and Maggie Jones in the Lords – we are taking on the mantle of renewing our offer.

And I hope many ATL members will contribute to these reviews with your ideas on how we can collectively raise our game.

When I was appointed I said that I wanted to put the classroom front and centre in the debate on education. Too many, on both the Left and the Right, are obsessed with overhauling structures. And as important as structures are, we know that what makes the most difference to the education outcomes for our children is the quality of teaching.

This is what the evidence says and it is evidence that should guide education policy, not ideology and the myths of a golden past. All too often in debates on education, we hear opinions formed by a rose tinted view of the past. There is a tendency for living mythically.

We saw it last week on grammar schools.

And we see it today in the attitude – on both sides – to free schools.

We cannot meet the challenges of an advanced industrialised nation, develop high tech manufacturing skills, pupils adapted to the dissemination of information via social networks with an education approach that is rooted in 19th Century industrialism, 1960s idealism or 1980s marketisation.

I have argued and will continue to argue for an evidence-based approach to education.

We also have to ensure that the evidence keeps pace with an era of constant upheaval. I know the pace of change can be overwhelming, but if we fail to keep up it will be to fail the next generation.

While our economic future is uncertain, while we face unparalleled competition from abroad, and a public that expects far more, our schools have to keep pace.

While we must invest in buildings, equipment and books – the most important thing is to invest in quality teaching.

We know that high quality teaching makes the biggest difference, in terms of education outcomes for all young people.

Especially significant is the impact of teaching on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We know that the poorest children are concentrated in schools with the highest levels of underperformance. Research from the Royal Society of Arts identified this ‘double disadvantage’ in which the most deprived young people are likely to receive a below par education.

The data from their report shows that more affluent pupils tend to attend better schools. By contrast, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are over-represented in ‘Satisfactory’ and ‘Inadequate’ schools.

Young people from poorer backgrounds consistently make the least progress in school: the findings from this report demonstrate that the quality of disadvantaged pupils’ schooling contributes to the poor educational outcomes of these (particularly vulnerable) young people.

Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that over a school year, these pupils gain one and a half years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with half a years’ with poorly performing teachers.

In other words, being a poor pupil in a poor classroom, is the equivalent of being left a year behind.

This is a national scandal.

I know there are inequalities in our health system, but if poorer patients were left to linger on waiting lists for an extra year there would be a huge outcry.

But too often in education, we accept inequality – condemning certain children to mediocrity because we assume that they cannot achieve success.

This is one of the biggest barriers to social mobility today.

So one of the top priorities of a future Labour Government will be to address these areas of ‘double disadvantage’.

The double whammy of a poor background and a poor school – creating a cycle of poverty that can exclude generation after generation.

We started to address this in government. Our academies had an average intake of 30% of pupils on free school meals – well above the national average of 18%, and six times the average intake in academies set up by the Tory-led Government.

The research conducted by ATL into increased numbers of pupils on free school meals highlights the increase in poverty, as families across the country are feeling the squeeze.

So double disadvantage is a growing problem.

It is important we don’t lose focus on healthy school meals, including breakfast clubs as routes to increasing attainment.

And it is important we understand why free school meals have a low take up in some areas – if there is more to do to address issues around stigma.

We need innovative solutions to tackle cyclical poverty – the priority should be to develop educational best practice and target at these areas of double disadvantage.

Too often the Government focuses its energy on pet projects which don’t raise standards in areas of real disadvantage.

While Labour’s academies focussed on some of the poorest communities, by contrast, the Free Schools and Academies being set up under the Tory-led Government are often in areas with already outstanding schools, and higher levels of wealth.

The priority for new schools should be areas with a shortage of places. In particular, more primary schools to address the growing crisis in primary places.

The Government is failing to deal with this urgent shortage. Across England we need nearly half a million more primary places – the equivalent of building an extra 2,000 primary schools between now and the General Election.

All the Government has done so far is promise an extra 100 new Free Schools, many of which will be secondaries and many not in areas with the greatest need for places.

This shortfall is being felt on the ground. In Barking and Dagenham, the council are proposing to rent out an empty Woolworth’s store and a warehouse from MFI to house temporary classes.

Brighton Council is looking at pupils being taught at a football stadium, in a bingo hall or in redundant churches.

And at Ladybarn Primary School here in Manchester a surge in pupil numbers means that pupils have to eat their lunch in shifts, with the first wave sitting down to their lunch at 11.15am. Many then have to have a second meal in the afternoon because they get hungry again.

It is irresponsible that while pushing through the biggest cuts to education spending since the 1950s, the Government decided to spend half its capital allocation in the Autumn Statement on Free Schools. We believe all the capital should be spent on meeting basic need on the ground.

Even more importantly, if we are to address this double disadvantage, we have to encourage more teachers to teach in tough schools in poor neighbourhoods. The exact opposite of what will happen under the Government’s regional pay plans.

If regional pay means pay cuts for teachers in the poorest parts of England how does that help tackle disadvantage? I urge the Government to think again.

Part of the answer to addressing the double disadvantage is to develop stronger progress measures – so parents and communities better understand how schools develop children, not just churn out results.

A school that is progressing is more likely to attract quality teachers and quality leaders.

And we need to challenge teachers and schools to continually improve.

For poor performing schools, the focus must be on improving attainment and raising basic standards. For satisfactory schools, the focus must be on developing innovative approaches which go the extra mile. And for good or outstanding schools, the challenge is for them to take on extra responsibility to raise standards amongst other schools in their community.

By the same token, a teacher should be able to demonstrate how they have improved their practice every year – year after year. And the Government’s teaching standards should reflect that – so a newly qualified teacher is not treated in the same way as a professional of many years standing.

My education mission is to improve the quality of teaching and learning. That is the key to unlocking systematic improvements in our school system.

And that is my aim – system wide improvement. Not a policy that works for a few children in a few schools but systemic reform that delivers better outcomes for all children in all schools.

I know part of the answer is to foster a culture of good behaviour, where teachers and other pupils are respected, bullying is not tolerated and an ethos of learning is celebrated.

I want to pay tribute to the pupils from the Magna Carta School who spoke to you yesterday on the issue of homophobic bullying in schools.

Schools should be safe and secure environments in which all young people embark on their journey of personal development and fulfilment, in becoming people who think for themselves and act for others.

Schools should give children and young people the space in which they are educated of the dangers of discrimination and in which diversity is celebrated.

Yet for too many young people, going to school is an all too different experience.

While there has been some great progress since I was at school, homophobic bullying still blights the lives of too many young people.

Where homophobic bullying goes on, discrimination and harassment prevail. Learning and development are stifled.

As a young man at school, I was unable to share the truth about my sexual orientation openly. In fact I only shared it with a single friend.

I would have hoped that by today, other young people in my situation would not have had to share the reservations that I had.

That they would not have to face discrimination and stigma for their sexual orientation.

Sadly, despite progress in overcoming discrimination of this kind, we must all redouble our efforts to tackle homophobic bullying in schools and across society as different forms of homophobia – verbal, emotional and physical – continue.

I want to commend the excellent work of Stonewall through their ‘Education For All’ campaign. Working with trade union partners, they play a crucial role in supporting teachers and schools to confront the homophobic bullying in schools.

But even today, there are still very few “out” teachers, especially heads. I want to pay tribute to the courage of those who are out and the positive role ATL and the other teacher unions have played on LGBT equality.

We have made great progress in institutions like Parliament, with far more MPs and Peers open today about their sexuality. While I respect people’s right to privacy, it is a mark on our society if teachers feel unable to be open.

The tragic story of Dominic and Roger Crouch brings home the loss that can occur when discrimination prevails in our schools.

Dominic Crouch committed suicide following reports of homophobic bullying at school. Responding to the death of a child, a father’s worst nightmare, Roger campaigned to highlight the issue of homophobic bullying in schools. Roger was recognised as the Hero of 2011 by the gay rights charity Stonewall. However, the consequences of Dominic’s bullying did not stop at his own death. In November of last year Roger, unable to cope, took his own life.

I highlight the experience of the Crouch family to illustrate the consequences of the forces of ignorance. We must all take forward the powerful message of the pupils from the Magna Carta school to confront homophobia, in all its forms.

So I want to pay tribute to Charlotte Hewitt, Molly Russell, Hannah Wells, Cara Houghton and Duncan Lewry for their fantastic work to address homophobic bullying in schools. Their video carries a powerful message and warrants the commendation that they received from the Prime Minister. In taking on this project, these young people have shown excellent examples of leadership and we should all commend their efforts. We have to do far more to address bullying in schools of all kinds.

First, teachers should have specific training on anti-bullying skills as part of their initial teacher training.

Second, schools must adopt a zero tolerance approach, with a particular focus on discrimination.

Third, every school should have a charter – posted visibly in classrooms and corridors which explains what kind of behaviour is unacceptable.

All of us have a responsibility to challenge bullying, and we have to ensure a culture that supports those teachers and pupils who stand up to bullies.

I know too that violence and bullying isn’t something that just affects pupils.

I was shocked to see the research which ATL produced showing that a third of teachers had experienced some kind of physical violence.

While there is a responsibility on school leaders to address this problem, there is a clearly a wider issue here.

Schools can often be the only ‘safe haven’ for young people.

Parents can be a huge influence on their children. They are the ultimate force for change.

When parents take a strong interest in their child’s development, it can be the difference between good and bad behaviour, the difference between good and bad attainment, and the difference between a life of success, or a chaotic and troubled future.

So Labour will look at the whole issue of parenting and childcare as we conduct our policy review process.

Tackling intergenerational failure – poverty, illiteracy, worklessness, substance abuse and criminality will be the key marker of our success as a society.

I am privileged to have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time visiting schools and meeting with teachers, seeing the fantastic work that goes on in many class rooms. One of the things that has struck me from talking to teachers is the need to look again at how teachers are supported in strengthening and developing themselves to improve the educational outcomes in their classrooms.

Raising performance does not come about by talking down the teaching profession.

Michael Gove has got it wrong by focusing on a minority of poorly performing teachers. Of course, not everyone has what it takes to be a teacher. And I have said that I will always support head teachers in getting rid of those who do not make the mark. But in weighting the debate so heavily towards the minority, the Education Secretary risks undermining the profession.

Improvement and change come about by fostering learning within the teaching profession and by taking the profession with you, not by pitching yourself against it. When I was a minister, the London Challenge showed what can be achieved through effective partnership work and working with the profession. Ofsted reported in 2010 that the London Challenge has continued to improve outcomes for pupils in London’s primary and secondary schools at a faster rate than England overall.

And whilst we should be cautious about applying an approach across the country that has worked in London, there are lessons we can learn.

The Sutton Trust has found that English schools could improve their low position in international league tables in Reading and Mathematics and become one of the top five education performers in the world within 10 years if the performance of the country’s least effective teachers was brought up to the national average.

In schools across England, there are leaders in all levels of schools and in all types of schools who are using the creative space afforded to them to be innovative in collaborating with colleagues within their school and across schools. These ‘energy creators’ are pioneering innovation and leading the charge for system improvement.

I am interested in seeing how we can learn more from collaborative models, such as those at North Liverpool Academy, where large classes are taught by three teachers, promoting peer-to-peer planning, delivery and evaluation. I am frequently told by teachers that there needs to be a greater emphasis on peer-to-peer learning, both within and between schools. I will be interested in hearing from you today on your thoughts on the best ways for taking forward this agenda.

I want to recognise the excellent work of Teach First, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and the impact that it has had on both raising performance and the status of the teaching profession. What makes their initiative so impressive is not just the excellent graduates coming through over the past 10 years but the emphasis that Teach First places on producing graduates who share in the responsibility of raising outcomes across their own schools and their community of schools in which they work. I met recently with Teaching Leaders who similarly share this outlook and who are doing fantastic work with middle leaders in schools.

Both individual teachers and schools can and must play a role in driving system wide improvement.

It’s useful here to look at the criteria, set out by education expert Judith Little, in identifying what makes a good school. She argues that we can tell a good school- one that delivers educational progress and improved outcomes for all children- where the following criteria are evident:

– where teachers talk about teaching;

– where teachers observe each other’s practice;

– where teachers plan, monitor and evaluate their work together;

– and where teachers teach each other.

Collaboration amongst teachers – within and between schools – is the key to achieving this. And whilst there are examples of this occurring organically, there is a need to systematically address how the education system promotes collaboration and innovation here.

As Mary highlighted in her speech yesterday, we know that the highest performing countries place far greater emphasis on peer-to-peer learning in the Continued Professional Development of teachers. So as well as learning from good practice at home, there are valuable lessons from abroad.

For example in Japan, the following components shape their pedagogy:

– a very sharp focus on lesson planning (minute by minute);

– joint planning between teachers across schools;

– joint reflection and refinement;

– repeat ‘performance of lessons’; and

– public demonstration of successful lessons

So we need to look at how high performing jurisdictions like Japan have achieved success and ask what we can do to improve the Continuing Professional Development of our teachers.

And that I why I have asked Sir Tim Brighouse – who many of you will know – to review CPD for teachers in the country. Tim is a distinguished educationalist who has championed the voice of teachers. I know that Tim is very well placed to provide evidence-based recommendations on the best way forward for system wide improvement.

And as it is right that we must continue to strive for improvements in teaching, it is also right that we continue to work to raise the status of support staff in our schools.

I recently shared a platform with Mary, when I launched the idea of establishing an ‘Office for Educational Improvement’. The idea is to create an educational equivalent of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility to act as an independent clearing house for evidence-based education policy. Chairing the event, the Editor of the Times Education Supplement, Gerard Kelly, challenged Mary and I to be guided by evidence on support staff. I want to take on this challenge here today.

I have to say, support staff can play a vitally important role in school improvement but this is dependent on the role and function that they fulfil.

Recent research from the Institute of Education reports that an under-performing child who spends more time with a Teaching Assistant and thus receives less attention from teachers will not progress as well as they should. Teaching Assistants can and should play an important role in the classroom but they must not become the primary educators for SEN children or those who are falling behind.

In Government, Labour delivered a step change in our education system, through a programme of investment and reform. We invested in huge numbers of Teaching Assistants and in support staff in schools. And we were right to do so. It is right too that we consider the evidence to look at how support staff, as we do with teachers, can be most effective in raising the educational outcomes of all children.

We should recognise the hard work and achievements of support staff. As Education Secretary, Ed Balls made strides towards a better deal for support staff in their terms and conditions. And whilst we didn’t achieve all that we might, progress was made. I know that many ATL members will be keen for the Government to set out its vision for support staff, an area that as yet, we have heard very little on.

Finally, I want to turn now to touch on something your President Alice Robinson has written about in her welcome message to conference delegates.

Accessing high quality learning opportunities should be open to all of our children. Unfortunately, this is not the reality.

Opportunities for self-fulfilment for all our children, whatever their background

Raising aspiration in children so that they know that they can realise their true potential through hard work.

That is why I am in education.

Under Labour, whilst we didn’t get everything right, we made huge strides.

In narrowing the attainment gap between the rich and the poor

In raising the status and quality of the teaching profession

And through investment in Early Years which pays dividends down the road

A Sure Start Centre in every community

Nursery places for 3 and 4 year olds

A guarantee of 15 hours a week childcare for the most deprived 2 year olds

In introducing these radical policies, Labour set the terms for what became the accepted narrative. Investment in early years is better for children and better for the economy.

Yet, despite the Prime Minister’s promises on Sure Start, he has not remained true to his word.

Hundreds of children’s centres closing. The ring fence on funding removed. And many centres unable to employ a qualified teacher any more.

We also see in the crisis in primary school places, a Government that is failing to respond. Favouring to concentrate on pet projects, Michael Gove is ignoring the half a million new places we will need by the next election.

So as Labour moves forward in renewing our offer on education, we will be guided by evidence and we will focus on:

– system wide improvement, that will improve learning outcomes for all children in all schools;

– tackling double disadvantage to narrow the gap between the richest and poorest pupils;

– and reforms that builds on the foundations of the best generation of teachers

I look forward to having that debate with everyone here at ATL and with others in the education world.

Thank you.