WHEN hundreds of headteachers take to Westminster to demonstrate against the funding crisis in our schools as they did last year, you know something has gone seriously wrong.
As the leader of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) put it at the time, headteachers are not “the marching type”. A generalisation it may be, but heads demonstrating on this scale against funding cuts is unprecedented – and deeply troubling.
Since then, we’ve seen 7,000 heads write to millions of families to explain what the funding crisis means and to express their exasperation at their repeatedly rebuffed attempts to secure a meeting with Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary.
On Sunday, at the NAHT’s national conference in Telford, I met passionate and dedicated school leaders who want nothing more than the best for the children in their care.
And I have to say, considering the challenges they face, many of our headteachers are doing a remarkable job, something I have seen ample evidence of at schools across my constituency. This is despite a real-terms funding shortfall of over £5m from 2015/16 to 2018/19.
I spoke at the conference in my capacity as Shadow Minister for Early Years on inequality, social mobility and the importance of getting it right from the start. I firmly believe that high-quality early years education can change the life of a child, and thus alleviating the pressure on schools further down the line.
Many children have already fallen behind their peers by the time they arrive at the school gates for their first day at school. And over the years ahead, teachers, heads and support staff pour considerable time and effort into playing an often loosing game of catch-up.
A fact evidenced by the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission that showed inequality will remain entrenched in the UK “from birth to work” unless urgent action is taken. It found that 52 per cent of disadvantaged teenagers leave school without basic qualifications, and many get stuck in low-paid work.
We must reduce this gap – which is where my passion for early years policy comes from and why I feel we aren’t doing well enough.
In 2015, the Conservative government pledged 30 hours of ‘free’ childcare. It had the potential to transform our early education system.
Yet, since its launch in 2017, the policy has been chronically underfunded, with experienced nurseries blaming the funding shortages for their closing for good.
And there is one factor that is perhaps the most unforgivable. We’ve seen overwhelming evidence that there is a gap between the rich and poor from the very first day at school – yet only children whose parents work are able to claim the 30 hours.
This locks the most disadvantaged children out from the extra childcare that could change their lives for the better.
And for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, 15 hours of free childcare is available. But three out of 10 aren’t receiving the care they’re entitled to. That’s not acceptable and we must do better.
Another important issue I raised was the plight of maintained nursery schools (local authority-run early years schools with a qualified teacher in every classroom).
These schools do extraordinary work, often in areas of disadvantage. But many of these institutions’ futures have been put at risk by the Government choosing to cut costs at every turn.
So the big question is – how do we lay the foundations that will benefit generations to come? A Labour government would make sure that our early years and childcare sector is treated with the respect that it deserves.
We would seek to provide 30 hours of funded childcare and early education hours to all two to four-year-olds, ensuring the poorest don’t miss out. And this will be paid at a rate that covers nurseries’ costs, so they don’t have to struggle to make up the shortfall.
We also have to understand that quality education comes at a cost if we’re to truly benefit future generations.
The Labour Party has a 10-year plan to shift to a graduate-led workforce and improve the pay and skills of childcare staff with a new national pay scale for all early years workers starting at £10 an hour. The early years sector should not be one of the lowest paid in society. And a Labour government would bring back Sure Start Centres – a vital service that has been decimated by the Government.
All of this is to make sure children aren’t showing up to school with an attainment gap they may never close.
This has got to be our mission if we truly want to be a country of social mobility – it means not standing by and watching as our children fall behind.
Tracy Brabin is the Labour MP for Batley & Spen. She is also the Shadow Early Years Minister.