Pass the inkwell…

Last night I watched the year 6 play, which this year took us through periods in time, under the direction of a Time Lord. We visited Boudicca (and some Romans), Beethoven, a second world war kitchen, and even got as far as the ancient Egyptians, before landing safely back in the  village hall in the present day. Every child in the year 6 class (24 of them this year) had a speaking part. Every child sang and danced, albeit some more than others. And every child contributed to designing and selling tickets, painting the set, and so on.

The year 6 summer play has become a tradition here ever since the primary school has had a year 6 (until 2013 the school ended at year 4 and pupils then went to the middle schools which have now closed). It wouldn’t  happen at all, of course, without hours and hours of additional volunteering from teaching assistants to make costumes, source props and so on, teachers of the other classes being there to help, and significant support from the lighting and general backstage guru in the local drama group. It is put together in a whirlwind of activity which starts after the summer half-term as a kind of antidote to SATs.

Some of these children have been in village plays, been regular members of school choir or performed in other ways inside and outside school.  But most don’t have those experiences. The point about the Year 6 play is that, whatever their starting point, all the children are on stage. All collaborating, all memorising lines (even Mr Gove would be proud!). All supporting each other, whether that’s to remember what comes next, put on a costume or to get onto the stage in the first place. I can’t be the only person who derives enormous pleasure from watching children who are not the natural performers in the class grow in confidence, looking out at the audience and enjoying their lines, as the evening progresses. One can only presume that these are experiences our education ministers haven’t experienced for themselves. Why else would they think children will learn more from the precise positioning of the constituent parts of a semi-colon?

You read that last bit right. The government Time Lord, aka Nick Gibb the education minister (no-where near as entertaining as the year 6 Time Lord even when he tries), has decreed that these same children must leave school able to position a hand-written semi-colon not just in the right place but with the comma element of the semi-colon positioned correctly  “in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation”. The reason this has come to light is that it turns out marking of semi-colons (and other punctuation) has been inconsistent. Some children get a mark, others don’t, for exactly the same answer. (This hasn’t just been an isolated incident; the headteacher who brought it to public attention received over 5000 tweets last weekend from teachers frustrated by inconsistent SATS marking). So these children, freshly exuberant from their year 6 play, are supposed to go out in to the world knowing that the system is pitched against some of them for no better reason than the whim of a government department which has forgotten to move out of the nineteenth century.

I’m not saying children shouldn’t learn grammar. (They should, it’s useful in learning how to write effectively.) And I’m not saying their learning of grammar or anything else shouldn’t be assessed. (It should – by their teachers.) Just that learning the precise alignment of a hand-written semi-colon isn’t likely to be something they make much use of in adulthood, or even in the rest of their schooling. Not now that we have exchanged inkwells for laptops and ledgers for spreadsheets. Nor is the precise alignment of a semi-colon – even when consistently marked – a sensible thing to judge schools by, which is what happens with the SATs results.  Whereas confidence, the ability to do things that at first seem outside their comfort zone, self-belief and collaboration are all necessary attributes for embracing the world of work and becoming healthy, engaged and active citizens. Which is what, in my view, education should be for.

These children are lucky. We have a village hall complete with stage in which the children can perform (the school hall isn’t big enough for the whole school let alone a play). And people willing and able to help.  But they are also lucky because they are at a school where the staff still have the  capacity to fight for what children need to learn as well as delivering what they are told to learn. The memory, the skills and the sheer enjoyment which the year 6 class displayed on stage last night will stay with them  long after they have forgotten the precise height, depth and orientation at which the constituent parts of a semi-colon must be drawn.


Three days to go..

It’s been a lively but really interesting few weeks, full of visits and meetings, and with a strong and consistent presence in Sudbury town centre at weekends. I’ve met with WASPI women (denied access to their state pensions), childcare providers worried about meeting the unfunded demands on them set out by the Conservative government, representatives from the NFU very concerned about the impact of a hard Brexit on farmers (and consequently on the cost of food), and school leaders having to juggle budget cuts and recruitment problems. All of my visits and discussions have reinforced the need for a softer Brexit and investment in our public services – and demonstrated to me the commitment of local people to making Suffolk a vibrant and better place to live.

I and the CLP team have been buoyed by the response of local party members and supporters to the campaign. The turnout for our leafleting session in Sudbury last Saturday was the biggest yet. There’s been a constant stream of requests for posters, and so many offers of help. The publication of the Labour manifesto, with its vision for a different way of doing things, has clearly been not only refreshing for us as members, but a turning point for the public. People in the street are talking about issues, and acknowledging that things can’t carry on as they are, with Conservative proposals for older people being a particular talking point.

Theresa May called this election to deal with Brexit. Athough Brexit has featured in all three hustings debates and in conversation on the street, it has not been the main topic of discussion locally or nationally. This may be partly because of the horrific events in Manchester and London that have punctuated the campaign. But it is also because our public services have now reached a critical point, with cuts to, among others, school budgets and police numbers.

But Brexit does matter. It’s about our future. Yes, we need the investment in public services and infrastructure that is set out in the Labour manifesto, and we need that now. But as has been made absolutely clear to me during my visits in this campaign, our farmers, our services, and our young people need as good a deal as we can get, for our and their future. A second referendum isn’t a realistic option, so we need proper negotiations led by Keir Starmer.

We’re now in the final straight. I have a few visits left to do this week (including Hillside special school and Community Action Suffolk), and we plan to be leafleting at school gates as well as continuing to help Ipswich colleagues with their very strong – and we hope successful – campaign to elect Sandy Martin. Please do carry on with those one-on-one discussions, sharing messages on social media, and putting up those posters!

Every vote really does count.







On standing…

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been selected as the parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in South Suffolk.  The Labour Party has recently been going through turbulent times, but that doesn’t stop it being the party with the policies that hold the most promise for a fairer and more equal society.

Labour is full of committed activists,  supporters, and thinkers, able to campaign, promote and make decisions which are in the best interests of all of us. I can’t think of a better example of what this looks like on a local level than Suffolk Labour’s Manifesto for the county council elections, which have led to the very welcome return of Jack Owen as Labour councillor for Sudbury.

The current government is lurching towards negotiations on Brexit with no interest in mitigating its impact on our future prosperity. That’s in nobody’s interest, let alone our collective interest as a society.   I’m a musician – I know that you can’t conduct a choir from outside the room, which is exactly what Theresa May would have us believe is possible.   And whilst she’s busy pretending otherwise, her government has cut our public services leaving schools with a £3 billion funding gap, social care in chaos, and public sector workers without pay rises.

Labour always strives to create a more equal society, which is why Labour MPs across the country stand for more investment in our public services.   As the old saying has it: prevention is better than cure.  Failure to invest leads to increased costs in the long run; a more equal society is not only better for us, but also more affordable in the long term.  If the Brexit vote has taught us anything it’s that across the country, people know from experience that this country is not a fair and equitable place to live.   We need to change this, and to challenge the policies that give rise to it.  That ‘s why I’m standing for election.

I was fortunate to be parliamentary candidate for South Suffolk in the 2010 election. I live and work in the constituency and my particular interests and campaign experience continue to be in education, health and the environment, about which I shall post more over the coming weeks. I know that it is an extraordinary privilege to be a parliamentary candidate – it brings opportunities to meet people and to visit schools and workplaces and to understand more about the work that is done here and the community that we live in. I also know that, thanks particularly to the tireless work of local activists and the 2015 parliamentary candidate, Jane Basham, it’s a seat in which there is more Labour activity than you might think.

I love living in Suffolk: it is not only beautiful to look at but full of towns and villages with a clear sense of community.  Yet that sense of community is threatened by increased inequality, impoverished public services, and decisions – most notably on housing – that fail to take account of the needs and wishes of local people.  Now that the Brexit process has been started, we can’t afford to exchange the protections of the EU for a power-grab by big business.  I’m standing to be MP for South Suffolk as I want to work for a Suffolk that is not only beautiful to look at, but has secure, effective public services, and is a vibrant place to live.

If you want to contact me during the election campaign, please email me on

For more information on Labour in South Suffolk go to

Emma Bishton is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for South Suffolk #GE2017. Promoted by David Plowman on behalf of Emma Bishton both of 8 Queen St, Hadleigh, Suffolk IP7 5DZ.



Dear Angela Rayner 

I have just received your email about the new education policy that will give the next generation “the best chance”.

I’m sorry to have to disagree (and I mean that, I’m a solid Labour voter and education campaigner, supportive of inclusive and universal policies that reduce inequalities in the long term). But you are fiddling while Rome burns, though I grant you, the fire is not of your making. All around us schools are dealing with severe funding pressures as a direct consequence of Tory government policy – and having to resort to measures such as larger class sizes and cutting teaching assistants. And access to creative subjects which should be engines for equality is increasingly reserved for those who can afford to pay. All these measures will have a direct and lasting negative impact on the next generation, even if they leave school less hungry than they do now.

At some future time there’s definitely a lot to be gained from discussing the potential benefit of universal free school meals and from getting rid of the tax freedoms enjoyed by private schools. But right now this policy is distracting from the fundamental issues which Labour needs to be responding to. Meanwhile, parents who can are switching off from Labour and turning to private education in the hope that this will give their children ‘the best chance’. All of which makes the chances of this policy becoming an own goal really rather high.

This pernicious Tory government is spending considerable amounts of energy reducing funds and opportunities for this generation and the next. You have the opportunity to set the terms and the scope of the debate on what is really needed to make our education system deliver the best chance for all our children. Please Mrs Rayner, give us the big picture first before filling in the detail.

Dear Lord Nash

The article in the TES about your speech to the Challenge Partnership national conference last week certainly made me think. (It seems I’m not alone, judging by the comments the article provoked.)  You covered much ground, but here are my initial concerns about what you said.

Why do you think that education always has something to learn from business? Is it really a one-way street? Does business have nothing to learn from education? I’ve worked in the public sector for 25 years. That doesn’t make me blind to bureaucracy, but it does help me to see the benefits of a shared sense of endeavour focused on something bigger than profit. And it doesn’t make me blind to all the news stories about businesses  whose eagerness to appease their shareholders gets in the way of customer service, or staff wellbeing. In short, I don’t think we’re yet at the point where social workers, doctors, and teachers, similarly beleaguered though they are, feel they have much to learn about work ethics and accountability from bankers.

The TES reports that you also said that good school leaders  “always put children’s interests before those of adults.” Well yes. Their whole job is think about children’s immediate, medium-term and long-term interests. But these same school leaders are being asked to act in their school’s interest, not the interest of their pupils, through the association of test scores with league tables, through Ofsted and academy-takeovers. It would be quite helpful if you could point that out to the Secretary of State.

I was glad to hear your concern at the amount of time teachers spend planning lessons (and your suggestion that teaching practice follow the evidence). As a parent witnessing the daily struggle that my children’s teachers, and my teacher friends, have in finding enough hours in the day to be a teacher (never mind anything else), I am all too aware that they are struggling to keep pushing the ball up the hill let alone to make it roll smoothly. But your solution is that teachers “embrace standardisation”? Where relevant, they already do: teachers share lesson plans, they share online resources, they discuss goals.  The idea that they aren’t already looking for ways to save time is quite laughable. The reason they prepare for lessons is to make sure they are completely familiar with what it is that they will be doing, why they are doing it, and what they are hoping to achieve by doing it. In much the same way that anyone would read up on a subject before giving a speech about it.  One lesson education might learn from business is that raising staff satisfaction pays dividends. Devaluing teaching by turning teachers into delivery systems for off-the-peg resources is the exact opposite.

One more thing. You are quoted as saying: “I think in the past too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism”. It would be helpful (never mind polite) if you could supply some evidence for this assertion.

In summary, it’s difficult not to conclude that you are mainly interested in the business opportunities that necessarily arise from a market-led model in schools, promoting a proliferation of  educational ‘products’ – be they teaching robots, or test papers.


Next on the timetable – the spinning lesson

“Welcome to the house of fun!” So sang my son when his school performed the fantastic musical “Our House’ a few years ago, in a school theatre that has since been pulled down. He’ll be singing again tonight, in the new school hall at the centre of an impressive, light, well-organised school building that has replaced not just the crumbling theatre but a series of buildings that were both too small and too old to service the school (whose numbers increased by half due to a local schools reorganisation).  In an ideal world, they’d have had a new theatre in the new building, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and no school can provide everything everyone wants. In fact many schools now live in a world which is so far from ideal that replacing old buildings, or putting on big school shows, are just pipe dreams. My children have been lucky. But this is a state education system educating the vast majority of children in the country.  Paid for by taxpayers. In the 21st century why on earth should UK children have to be lucky to get schooled in a building which is actually fit for purpose?

Looking at the educational news stories around today, “Welcome to the world of spin” might be  more apposite description of where we find ourselves.  (And yes, I do know that spin is officially out of fashion. Doesn’t make it out of use though.) This morning the National Audit Office published a report revealing that  £6.7 million is needed to bring old school buildings up to standard.  This follows hot on the heels of another of their reports, from last December, which revealed that schools need to make cuts of about 8% by 2020 because of rising costs and increased numbers of pupils. Meanwhile the Education Select Committee, which notices rather more about what’s going on that the government might like, reported yesterday that teacher shortages are now at crisis point. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help wondering if the government is hoping the teacher shortage will solve the budget deficit (without anyone noticing, of course).

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that on the same day the latest NAO report was published, the New Schools Network (which sorts out new free schools for the government) released an advertising jingle for  Michaela Free School. (It’s worth a watch, if only to wonder why it’s so necessary for the school’s head and founder to be so passive-aggressive towards all other schools and why she’s the only person who gets to speak about how happy the children are.) So the children are happy at school, and learning. Well yes, I would hope they would be, whether it’s a free school or not.

Whilst they outsource yarn-spinning to the New Schools Network, what else is  the government doing to resolve the multiple crises facing our schools? Why, proposing to build 500 additional free schools by 2020, of course, spending £240 million on new grammar schools, blathering on about a new funding formula that – whilst needed – is not actually addressing the budget problem, and giving back £368million to the Treasury that it was going to spend on forcing schools to be academies. (It’s still planning to make them all academies, just without making such a fuss about it).  Oh and surveying teachers who have left the profession rather than finding out what would encourage teachers still in the profession to stay there. All in all, a position otherwise known as sticking its head in the sand. Which, if it isn’t already, they should really add to the PE curriculum. That’s the kind of detail they like talking about. Big things, like making sure the schools are actually still standing, is clearly a bit beyond them.


Some schools are more equal than others…

Anyone who follows the pronouncements of the Department for Education will know that it finds bald numbers – the results of abstract tests – more meaningful than assessments of progress, when determining whether pupils are getting what they need out of our education system. Anyone who spends much time talking to teachers and headteachers will also be aware that, on the whole, they seem to be of the opposite opinion –  that written assessments of progress tell a fuller story about individuals than numerical scores do.

Quantitative assessment has its place. I’ve been looking at some numbers produced by the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which tell a very different story than that offered by Theresa May and Justine Greening. The government says it is protecting ‘core schools funding’. The trouble is, their definition of ‘core school funding’ is very narrow. It doesn’t include funding which schools receive indirectly via local authorities, and which is set to be dramatically cut.

Nor does it take account of additional costs that schools now have to find from their ‘protected’ budgets, such as increased National Insurance contributions. When taken altogether, the government’s claims about school funding shift from lacking in candor to being misleading. The NUT/ATL have calculated exactly what those rising costs and indirect cuts are per year by 2020, in real terms, for each school in England, and there’s no happy ending. They have calculated that nationally, more than 9 out of 10 secondary schools will experience a cut in funds, averaging £365 per pupil.

Here in Suffolk, the projected losses are less severe, because the calculations take account of the Fair Funding Formula, which the government is proposing to adopt. As Suffolk schools have for years received less funding per pupil than those in the country on average, that should be a good thing. And it would be a good thing were the government proposing to add resource to enable them to level up all the underfunded authorities, instead of sharing out the existing budget differently across all authorities. It doesn’t take a level 6 SATS pupil to work out that across the country, this method means many schools will lose out in order for some to benefit. Nor is it rocket science to realise that schools can’t recoup their losses simply by spending less on toilet roll or white boards.  Even with the benefit of the funding formula in Suffolk, the projected funding deficit for Suffolk’s secondary schools alone is equivalent to more than 155 teachers.

I hear heckling from the defenders of austerity: “Some schools have too much money, and anyway public services are wasteful”. Okay then: if that’s the case, how is it that some of our schools appear to be protected from the impact of these cuts and rising costs? As any reader of this blog may know by now, Suffolk has five secondary Free Schools additional to demand. These free schools are located in the leafier parts of our Tory shire; meanwhile, it is secondary schools in the most deprived parts of Suffolk (West Ipswich and Lowestoft) which are set to take the biggest hit. Here are some numbers, all derived from the data on the NUT/ATL calculator. Across Suffolk’s 45 secondary schools, by 2020:

  1. The average impact of rising costs, funding cuts and the new funding formula, for the 29 academies ranges from 0-13%, average of 4.75%
  2. The average impact of rising costs, funding cuts and the new funding formula  for the 9 Local Authority schools ranges from 0 – 8%, with an average of 2.6%.  (This figure is lower than the figure for academies because academies receive their share of the local authority grant directly, whereas for Local Authority schools the funds go to the local authority which is supposed to provide schools with services directly. That they don’t now, in these parts, is another story.)
  3. The average impact of rising costs, funding cuts and new funding formula for the 5 Free Schools ranges from 0-2% with an average of just 0.6%. Free Schools are academies. Why then do they appear to be given preferential treatment?
  4. Six of the seven schools with the highest projected cuts (each more than £300,000) are in the most deprived areas of Suffolk. That means that they already face significant challenges.

For example, Ormiston Denes Academy is the school calculated to take the biggest hit, with a projected cut of £620,230. Last year just 32% of pupils at Ormiston Denes achieved 5 x A*-C GCSEs including Maths and English. Yet a cut of this scale is equivalent to 16 teachers. This is not a recipe for improvement.

For the purposes of these numbers, I’ve accepted the assumptions of the NUT/ATL calculator. Detractors will doubtless query the formula, quibble over the assumptions, or suggest that other factors should be taken into account. Some may suggest a reason to account for the disparity in cuts between schools in the least deprived and the most deprived areas, and the apparent protection of Free Schools from cuts. But the outcome of these predicted cuts is pretty clear: these numbers cannot be made to tell a different story. Nor do they represent any kind of progress.