The Guardian view on schools: Labour’s proposals rightly put the focus on teachers | Editorial

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Two more days of school were missed by thousands of children in England last week because of strikes, while the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, refused to reveal an independent review body’s recommendations on teachers’ pay. There is a high likelihood that headteachers will join industrial action in the autumn. For years, Conservative ministers have taken a high-handed approach to teachers, dismissing concerns about falling morale and the staffing problems it causes. Now unhappiness is overflowing and the risks are real. Around the country, lessons are being taught by teachers without specialist knowledge, while a growing number of school buildings crumble around them.

Schools and universities are not among Rishi Sunak’s top-five priorities. So it is a relief for anyone who cares about education that Sir Keir Starmer has included it on his rival list. In a speech last week he offered more details of his party’s plans while Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, made it clear that improving nurseries will form a key part of her party’s agenda – as it was for New Labour, with Sure Start.

Labour thinks it will raise at least £1bn by removing tax breaks from private school fees. So far it has refused to say how much of this will be spent on raising salaries. A plan to reward new teachers with £2,400 after two years will encourage them to stay on, rather than quit. But a broader ambition to restore the profession’s status, and reset the relationship with ministers, will come with a bigger price-tag.

On stalled Conservative plans to force local authority schools to join academy chains, Labour remains quiet. But Ms Phillipson is right to make improving the situation within schools the priority. Governance and democratic accountability are important – but unanswered job adverts, high staff turnover rates, pupil absenteeism and the unmet needs of those with special needs are more pressing.

The Conservatives, particularly when the energetic Michael Gove was education secretary, set great store by their questionable curriculum and assessment reforms. Labour’s new focus on speaking skills promises a welcome change. It is true that writing has been given too much weight, relative to verbal communication (except in foreign languages, where speaking and listening are tested routinely). Sir Keir says the detail of curriculum changes will have to wait. One commitment he could and should make now is to involve teachers in the process. Robbing them of autonomy, as recent governments have, has done as much to diminish the profession as anything else. If Sir Keir or anyone else wants innovation and experience in classrooms, teachers must be able to try things out and follow their interests.

Labour will have to hold its nerve in the fight over tax breaks. Correspondence released last month revealed officials at the Independent Schools Council describing Ms Phillipson as “very chippy”. If she becomes education secretary her next challenge will be the Treasury – with universities too in the midst of a funding crisis. But she and her colleagues also know that money spent attacking poverty and its causes should lift some of the current burden on schools.

None of this will be quick, cheap or easy. Labour’s thoughtful tone, combined with a determined focus on educational inequality, are promising indications. Austerity-lite policies won’t work. In power, it will have to do more, as the current government’s neglect of schools since the pandemic has been shocking.

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