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Teachers: PM can’t ignore child poverty crisis

Union says ‘warm words’ have done nothing for poor kids as Labour urges rethink on post-Covid school strategy

by Matt Trinder

Industrial reporter

THOUSANDS of teachers have urged the PM to take urgent action on child poverty, in a major survey showing serious discontent with the Tories’ education strategy. 

Before the start of its online annual conference today, the National Education Union (NEU) canvassed more than 10,000 school staff for its State of Education survey.

Union leaders said the results send a clear message that “the historic faults of the education system” must now be righted, while Labour urged the Tories to drop their “half-baked ideas” for the sector’s Covid-19 recovery.

The vast majority of survey respondents (68 per cent) said that ministers must step in to support children from financially struggling families during the pandemic, with a massive 94 per cent saying that poverty has a clear detrimental impact on learning.

About eight in 10 felt that government must take urgent action to support schools and colleges during the Covid-19 recovery and beyond, by reducing unmanageable workloads (85 per cent) and the role of Ofsted and league tables (77 per cent) in the next school year. 

Nearly all respondents (98 per cent) did not believe that extending school days or changing term lengths would help pupils catch up on missed learning, placing far greater urgency on “flexibility and creativity” to properly aid student learning. Most staff (82 per cent) also wanted greater flexibility in the national curriculum.

Most said that remote working had gone well. But over half (55 per cent) felt that it was time for ministers to address the digital divide “once and for all,” after pupils from wealthier backgrounds benefited from access to better technology while working from home.

Responding to the survey, shadow education secretary Kate Green said that the “government’s chaotic response to this pandemic has exposed inequalities which have been holding children back during a decade of failed Conservative governments.”

She added: “Labour, parents and teachers are calling on the government to prioritise delivering a world class education for every child, with valued staff supporting them to recover learning and delivering activities that promote wellbeing, rather than half-baked ideas about the length of the school day or term dates.”

NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “It is now beyond doubt that child poverty is on the rise. The effects can last a lifetime, and young people have one chance in education.

“There is no doubt, too, that schools and colleges have been going beyond the call of duty for them during this past year. 

“The government, by contrast, spent much of 2020 voicing warm words about its concern for the disadvantaged, including when mounting arguments for the wider opening of schools and colleges in September and January.

“Yet, sadly and unsurprisingly, it has persistently failed to deliver for young people in poverty.

“The government has been on the wrong side of history for too long, and its playing fair-weather friend to disadvantaged young people fools nobody.”

She said that had Education Secretary Gavin Williamson listened to the profession, he could have avoided last year’s grading scandal, “pointless battles” over free school meals and the failure to plan for laptop provision for home learning.

“Should the Prime Minister have prioritised good practice over good press, he may have enacted the circuit break that was widely called for during autumn term,” she added. “Instead, we saw needless levels of disruption to learning.”

“The message is clear: we need to steer a course beyond Covid-19 which rights the historic faults of the education system in this country and the distorted priorities of those who run it.

“The genie is out of the bottle, so there is no reason to stick by the dead wood of a bloated curriculum, excessive accountability and oversized classes.

“The world has changed, and the education system should change with it.”

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.


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