From education to employment

Lib Dems slam Tory school cuts as a ‘political choice’ at NAHT Conference

Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson Layla Moran

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran made a speech to the NAHT Conference in Telford, slamming the Conservative government’s school funding cuts by stating they were a “a political choice”.

In her speech Ms Moran criticised the “high-stakes over-testing”, a lack of funding behind mental health support for both children and over-stretched teachers, and reiterated the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to scrapping mandatory Key Stage 2 SATs.

She also emphasised the importance of teachers in elections with three-quarters of a million voters switching their vote in 2017 over the issue of schools funding according to a Survation poll. Ms Moran thanked teachers for having the “bravery” to be “open about the reality of the schools funding emergency” and “for taking a stand”.

Ms Moran finished her speech by discussing the launch of an independent Education Commission “to develop a vision for the schools of the future” which will bring together teachers, practitioners and academics to think up what a future perfect schools system in England would look like.

Full speech:

Good afternoon everyone, I’m delighted to be with you today.

I still pinch myself when I speak at these conferences. That’s because as some may know, before becoming an MP I was a maths and Physics teacher. But what you may not know is that two years ago I was ready to embark on a completely different path!

Back in the spring of 2017, my next few years were all set. Having lost heavily in the 2015 election I decided to rededicate myself to my teaching career, and after months of job hunting I’d just received a job offer to become a Deputy Head.

I was so excited. I was going to lead bringing the International Baccalaureate to the school, a system that I had taught in more much of my career, and having spent a few years out of the classroom to focus on the politics I was excited to be part of and lead a school community again!

But then Theresa May went for a walk across Snowdonia and called a general election…That went well, didn’t it?

Well, better for me than for her I’ll admit that. Although this was after telling my head that if she wanted to make some money she’d do well to bet again me winning….but I did.

And in part it was thanks to people like you, your staff and the parents at your schools that I am here.

A poll taken after the election by Survation suggested that around three-quarters of a million voters switched their vote in 2017 over the issue of schools funding. I won my seat by just 816 votes.

But although that General Election campaign was fiercely fought, I suspect that, for many parents, it wasn’t the political parties that opened parents’ eyes to the schools funding emergency.

It was the desperate letters that their child brought home from school asking for donations.

It was that before their eyes parents could see class sizes rise, curriculum offers skrink and fewer and fewer TAs and even teachers.
It was the School Cuts website.

In other words: it was the teachers and head teachers.

I keep my hand in to the profession still as a primary school governor of a maintained school. We have faced the same issues as everyone else and I know just how hard it is for schools to admit to their parents the scale of financial challenges they are facing. We want to keep parents’ trust, reassure them that you are giving their child the best quality education we can. We don’t want to put off future families from applying to your school.

So I thank you for your bravery. For being open about the reality of the schools funding emergency. For taking a stand. For calling out the Conservative Government.

Because school cuts are, despite their protestations, a political choice.
It would only take just over £2 billion a year to bring per-pupil funding back up to 2015 levels in real terms. Meanwhile they have spent £4 billion preparing for a No Deal Brexit that Parliament has already ruled out.

I know what I’d prioritise that money on.

But the argument I want to make today is that the challenge facing schools today is far broader than money. Headteachers are doing an incredible job in the most difficult of circumstances.

A school funding emergency.

A crisis in support for students with SEND.

And a crushing culture of accountability and high-stakes over-testing. One that stifles creativity in the curriculum and focuses headteachers’ minds relentlessly on Ofsted grades and league table scores.

As I tour the country meeting headteachers is all types of schools, I can see that the system itself takes a heavy toll on you, the school leaders.

I was speaking to one newly-promoted headteacher in the Lake District who told me that the job she had just begun was nothing like she thought it would be.

She thought it would give her the opportunity to improve the quality of teaching throughout the school and change her pupils’ lives. But too many of her hours were spent pushing papers and preparing the next batch of data for when Ofsted next came along. She was considering quitting.
And when headteachers are put under unnecessary stress, it cascades down the whole school.

Pressure on heads means pressure on teachers.
And pressure on teachers means pressure on pupils.

Council figures I obtained last year found that nearly 4,000 teachers took long-term sick leave because of the pressure of work, anxiety and mental ill health. That number is, sadly, unsurprising.

Meanwhile, the number of children referred to mental health services in England has increased by more than a quarter in the last five years, according to the Education Policy Institute.

Of course, there are a host of factors that affect the mental health of a child – the wellbeing of their families, the communities in which they live, their social networks and adverse childhood experiences.
More money for schools must also be accompanied by more money for the service that families rely upon. CAHMS, Children’s services, even buses! Without support for the families at a local level, it is the school and the school leaders who so often have to pick up the pieces.
And Liberal Democrats are prepared to make the investment to give these students the support they deserve.

Some people ask me, but where will all this money come from. How can you afford it?

Well my answer to them is, this is an investment in the next generation, how can we afford not to.
But I want to focus on how our high-stakes testing culture is doing untold damage to the wellbeing of pupils and teachers alike.

Tests can be helpful – believe me I used to set them all the time! But the problem is how a schools’ success or failure in exam season has such stark consequences.

Take Key Stage 2 SATs for example. These results might not mean much to a pupil’s life chances but, for teachers, it’s the entire measure of their class’ performance over the last four or seven years.
Pupils feel the pressure our teachers are under. And so they feel that pressure too.

Each round of testing absorbs the focus of you and your teachers. I’d be fine with that if they were a genuine and useful measure that drove teaching and learning, but even Nick Gibb the schools minister recently defended SATS by saying “these aren’t tests that affect the future of a child”. Well sorry Nick if they aren’t then what’s the point!? Meanwhile stidents report having nightmares about them and sometimes they drive the children to tears.

Add to that an Ofsted regime that still relies heavily on data ahead of the nuanced qualitative judgments teachers and leaders are better able to make, then it is no wonder teachers feel a constant pressure to teach to the test, often at the detriment of thing that they know would be better at engaging and supporting young people.

It shouldn’t be this way. So I am proud that since becoming our education spokesperson, I led the Liberal Democrats to be the first political party to commit to scrapping mandatory Key Stage 2 SATs, and I am delighted others have followed suit.

I’m not prepared to accept the detrimental impact on teaching quality it is having. Nor am I prepared to accept a generation of children having their love of learning taken away from them. And I’m certainly not prepared to accept harming their wellbeing.

But it’s not just SATS. There are other ways the system insidiously uses numbers to drive competition between schools.

Take league tables.
If you go on the Department for Education’s website. Right there at the top is the link to performance tables.

So let’s look at one.
School Name: West Oxford Community Primary School.
Percentage of pupils meeting expected standard: 69%.
Percentage of pupils meeting a higher standard: 10%.
Progress Score: Reading: 2.8. Above Average. Writing: minus 2.3. Below Average. Maths: 1.2. Average.

When was that the total sum of what parents want from a school? Also without proper context these numbers are utterly meaningless and even worse, possibly misleading.

If the Government is going to have a website to give parents information about their local school, why not give them a full flavour of the educational experience that school provides?

Choosing a school shouldn’t be like renewing home or car insurance. Schools are so much more than just numbers. Gather together and publish parent and teacher feedback from surveys. Ask neighbouring school leaders to look at the quality of pastoral care or the breadth of subjects offered. And then leave it to parents to decide which measures are more important to them.

And we should be taking a similar approach with Ofsted.

You and your staff are highly-skilled professionals. The inspection system should be supporting you and improving your skills. It shouldn’t be a game of “catch out the weaknesses so we can justify reforming you.”

Ofsted too has become obsessed with a narrow range of data. Its heavy reliance on the EBacc has narrowed the programme of study in our secondary schools. There has been a marked decrease in the uptake of creative subjects as a result.

STEM is of course important, but what happened to STEAM? We need to be equipping our children for life in the next century, and narrowing their subject exposure at school jeopordises that.

I’m pleased that Amanda Spelman is beginning to see the error of the ways of her predecessors. The new draft guidance means that the quality of education won’t be as data-focused as it was before.

But Ofsted will still be enforcing unnecessary and damaging targets – they still want 75% of students to be studying the EBacc.

Meanwhile, too much is still at stake on the overall Ofsted inspection grade. When your next inspection will be, whether you will be converted into an academy or enter special measures, all depend on just one or two words at the top of the page. How can that be right?

The bottom line is – Ofsted has lost the confidence of the teaching profession. Which is why I think tinkering around the edges simply isn’t enough. I take a slightly different view from the NAHT. Rather than reform, I believe to achieve real chance, we need a complete overhaul, replacing this inspection scheme altogether.

Liberal Democrats would abolish Ofsted and replace it with a new schools inspectorate, drawing on the best traditions of the old HM Inspectorate of Schools.

This system should be led by teachers, for teachers – with peer-to-peer support to help schools improve where they need to do better.

A system that looks just as much at the culture of the school as much as the attainment of its pupils.

A system where a poor inspection result doesn’t lead to automatic restructuring, but greater support. Where schools do not receive a single grade, but where inspectors highlight areas for improvement and where schools would need outside help to make those changes.

Schools should be judged separately on their curriculum breadth, pupil welfare, leadership and management, long-term pupil outcomes and how they support their teachers.

And parents can decide what matters most to them when choosing a school for their child.

Now, we’re expecting to receive the Timpson Review next week. Rumours are that they’re going to recommend that schools should be more accountable to Ofsted for the children they exclude.

I am so frustrated about the scourge of off-rolling in our schools. It most harms the most disadvantaged. Pupils with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded than the rest of the school population. Again, how can that be right?

No child deserves to have their future prospects torn apart because they’d make a bad statistic. Exclusion, whether temporary or permanent, should always be a last resort. And it should never be done under the radar.

But we can’t let our most vulnerable children become another data point. Another metric to bang headteachers over the head with whilst the actual needs of the child are again overlooked.

Because schools off-rolling pupils is not the cause of our problems. It’s the symptom. The result of the perverse incentives set by Government.

The increase in exclusions and off-rolling can’t simply be dealt with in isolation. We need a culture shift in our schools system. And that shift should be driven by YOU – the experts. Slowly, over decades. Meaningful change that can survive whatever party comes to power. Driven by evidence and experience.

Which is why I’ve launched an independent Education Commission to develop a vision for the schools of the future. Bringing together teachers, practitioners and academics to think up what a future perfect schools system in England would look like. And I despite convening it do not sit on it. Even with my experience or my training. Because I want it to be staunchly apolitical.

I wanted to do this because – for once – I want education policy to be built from the bottom up. Working with the profession, rather than imposing policy change upon it.

On our website – – you can find out more about our project and have your say. We have opened our call to evidence and will publish our first report later this year. I want the union and it’s members to help drive this conversation.

We need this culture shift in our education system for the sake of your wellbeing, for the morale of your staff and for the happiness and healthiness of your pupils.

I hope that you’ll forgive me passing over that Deputy Head role two years ago to run for Parliament! But I stood to be an MP. Education drive me into politics and it’s my burning passion I want to change the debate and make the case for a schools system that lets teachers get on with teaching!

I’m proud that Liberal Democrats across the country are fighting for this every day. We stand with you. Together, let’s fight for an education system where every child has the opportunity to flourish.

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