About 50 people attended the Nottinghamshire NUT organised Education Question Time event at Chilwell School, one of the last remaining community schools in Notts, on Wednesday, April 22. Notable by her absence was the Conservative MP, Anna Soubry – odd really, considering Broxtowe is one of the most marginal seats in the country. Clearly Anna thinks these 50 people don’t need to hear what she has to say about the important issue of education. When panellist, Alan Gibbons, a children’s author, bemoaned her absence by condemning “the most brutal and ludicrous, pro-market, anti-child policies in the history of this country”, he received rapturous applause from the audience. So perhaps Anna may come to regret her absence.
The meeting was chaired by the Education Correspondent for ITV Central TV, Peter Bearne, and by general agreement, he did an excellent job, though, with 6 panelists, fewer questions than expected could be answered. The level of deference towards the panellists was also someone surprising, though Ray Barry of the Justice for Men and Boys Party, created a bit of a stir for his view that the low numbers of male teachers in primary schools was responsible for girls outperforming boys at GCSE level.
Positive endorsement from the audience seemed in direct proportion to the experience panellists had with what goes on in schools. Two of the panellists, Kevin Courtney (the NUT Deputy General Secretary) and Alan Gibbons are former teachers, so an audience largely made up of parents, teachers and students were most enthusiastic about their backing for an education system geared to the complex needs of children rather than focussed exclusively on academia. There was general opposition in the audience to the standards and target-setting regimes favoured by Ofsted and Governments since the 1988 Education Reform Act. When Alan Gibbons said ‘standardisation crushes teachers’ the audience cheered loudly.
Kevin Courtney pointed out the stark contrast between the supposed obsession with standards and the removal of the requirement of teachers to be qualified. He gave the example of a school in Leeds advertising for a maths teacher – qualification required? GCSE Maths! The audience very much endorsed his view that only qualified teachers should be employed from early years to the Sixth Form.
Diane Fletcher, teacher of French at a local Sixth Form College , asked the panel what value they placed on 6th form education given the huge cuts of recent years and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which helped poorer students stay on. Diane must have been a little bewildered by the answer of the Liberal Democrat, Stan Heptinstall, who spoke at length about the great work of the coalition government on apprenticeships whilst entirely ignoring Diane’s question.
Nick Palmer, the Labour candidate, made it clear that on post-16 and other sectors of education Labour would commit to maintaining education expenditure unlike the Tories, but he accepted that this many that might not be enough for many present. Alan Gibbons, to rapturous applause, said that Labour could coast the election if they raised the higher rate of tax to 60% and scrapped the trident nuclear programme. David Kirwin thanked Alan for his support for Green Party policy and made a commitment to scrap EMA. He was the only panellist to also clearly state that the Green Party would return all schools to Local Authority, democratic control.
A highlight of the evening was that two questions were asked by students from Chilwell School, one focussed on the lack of women and ethnic minority students in STEM subjects and the other on the pressure placed on students by relentless target setting. Both students gave the panellists a run for their money by offering their own very coherent, and somewhat left of centre views on the topics.
The last question of the evening asked the panellists if politicians should not just keep out of education entirely and allow teachers and other staff to do the jobs they are trained to do. Readers will be unsurprised to learn that the 4 politicians on the panel did not support that view.