Top of what, exactly?

In the space of a week, the Guardian has done more to promote the future prospects of a group of pupils than their school has. Last Tuesday the Guardian revealed the pernicious practice by St Olave’s grammar school of discarding students at the end of year 12 if they look less than likely to achieve an A or B grade. By this morning, in the face of persistent negative headlines and a legal challenge, the Guardian and the BBC led with the story that St Olave’s had had a change of heart and invited those students whom they recently asked to leave, to remain at the school. So far so good. But whilst St Olave’s has taken the biggest hit, what’s become clear in the response to the Guardian article is just how many schools – including comprehensives – engage in similar practice, in order to keep results high.

Criticism about the practice of discarding students at year 12  has been strong, along with condemnation of the obsession with league tables that drives it. But despite all this, the Guardian and the BBC have continued to describe St Olave’s as “the leading grammar”, a “top school” and so on. This kind of language is borrowed directly from the league tables the news story is decrying. Our collective understanding of these words in relation to schools is that they have the highest results (not hard to achieve if you select students in the first case like St Olave’s do, of course). But demonstrating how to destroy the self-esteem of 17 year olds isn’t my idea of showing leadership. The students concerned might be top of the discard heap, but that doesn’t make their school ‘top’ at anything other than protecting its own exam rating. Continuing to use this kind of language just perpetuates the idea that ‘top’ schools are those with the best results, not those best equipped to meet the needs of their pupils.

There’s talk of government having performance targets around retention in the sixth form, to dissuade schools from discarding students  they don’t view as up to scratch. But that’s a sticking plaster, not a cure. (After all, Government aren’t minded to do anything other than pretend that all students will achieve A grades in schools kicked into gear by a dose of (un)healthy competition. Policies such as sixth form retention targets are just a defence in case of voter backlash when inevitable injustices occur.) What I think we need instead is a  fundamental rethink about the purpose of education in the 21st century, with a concomitant change in thinking about how school success should be measured, and of the language used to do so.  Here’s a start: my idea of an exemplary school is one which aims to demonstrates the capacity to respond to its pupils educational, emotional and social needs, and set them up for adulthood. A school requiring improvement would be one focused only on a single domain at the expense of others: that is to say, one not unlike St Olave’s.


When it’s Free, and Not Free

It’s the beginning of August. One month before working parents of 3-4 year olds (those who meet the minimum earnings threshold to qualify) will apparently be accessing 30 hours of ‘free’ childcare a week during term-time. Sounds good, doesn’t it! Ah, but look again. It’s another of those chimeras offered by the Government that Likes to Say Yes (but really means No).  With the net result that it isn’t looking very likely that many of those 3-4 years will be taking up 30 hours free childcare anytime soon. According to Suffolk Infolink, for example, there are only three providers (two school nurseries and one childminder) as of today registered to provide the 30 hours  (out of a total of nearly 500 childcare providers in Suffolk who could be signing up to deliver it). Not exactly a wide choice of handy providers for  working parents  to choose from come September.

The Department of Education wants to promote childcare. For good reason: good early years support and play can help young children to build good foundations in social skills, confidence, communication and so on before they get to school,  heading off educational inequality. There’s plenty of evidence to this effect (though it’s been studiously ignored by government and local authorities when it comes to continuing the funding for Children’s Centres, of course).  And childcare is expensive for working parents, so all in all it sounds a terrific idea.

You can hear the “but” coming…

To start with, there are problems with the policy itself. The ‘free’ childcare is only available to working parents who have enough income (but not too much, which is at least something).  Now it’s not a high threshold (to qualify parents have to earn the equivalent of 16 hours per week at minimum wage), but that does mean that many of the children who could most benefit, whose parents are out of work or too randomly employed to qualify, aren’t actually eligible for free care. I could go on. The message ‘you have to be the right sort of parent to qualify for our offer’ couldn’t be clearer.

The government is of course at liberty to make bad policy decisions. But it isn’t at liberty to expect small businesses, self-employed individuals and voluntary sector organisations to pay for them. Which is exactly what seems to be happening.

I became aware of this issue during the election campaign, when as a local Labour candidate I was contacted by local childcare providers who have set up a national campaign group called Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding (CNLF). (And if only Labour had got in, childcare would be funded, with the funds being paid directly to providers so they could budget and plan properly. But I digress.) CNLF are rightly angry at being forced to pay for government policy, and even angrier at the mis-selling of the childcare as ‘free’. Many childcare providers are private nurseries, the kind of local enterprise that the Tory government is usually so keen on. But bizarrely, it looks as if government expects the private sector, along with not-for-profit nurseries (both types often providing longer days year-round to meet the needs of working parents), to take the biggest hit.

Childcare doesn’t come cheap: it needs staff (never mind rent, electricity, food etc). Preferably experienced and qualified early years staff, in sufficient quantities that they can do more than simply feed, toilet and keep the children safe.  In preparation for the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare, the DfE (with assistance from Deloitte) did a survey of childcare providers, their staffing ratios and cost, and found that (not surprisingly) on average providers use higher staff-ratios than the statutory minimum. (The word ‘minimum’ is used for a reason. Surely it is no coincidence that 85% of childcare providers have good or outstanding Ofsted ratings, yet average staff ratios are well above the statutory minimum?) And the DfE’s conclusion, of course, was not that parents and providers clearly prefer a staff:child ratio that enables staff to do more than make sure the children stay safe. No, the DfE decided that – despite the real-terms cuts in funding the National Audit Office had previously pointed to them –  it must be possible for providers to make savings and provide childcare more cheaply. The upshot? Providers are being paid less than it costs to provide care. Oh and they’re not allowed to pass the shortfall on to parents. So how might providers respond? One way, apparently, is to put staff on ‘more flexible’ contracts. (The kind of contract that could of course render them ineligible for the free childcare if they have young children of their own!)

The government, of course, has passed the buck to local authorities to sort out. But they are not equipped to do so. A quick glance at the Facebook page for the CNLF group shows you the kind of advice local authority advisors have been meting out to providers. It ranges from ‘ask staff to work voluntarily until the numbers build up’, ‘pay all the staff same regardless of (relevant and required) qualifications’ to ‘put out a bucket for donations’ to ‘take in the parents’ ironing to do whilst staff aren’t busy’.  You get the picture.  Advisors have been tasked to do the government’s dirty work implementing an un-funded policy, all the while having to pretend it’s Christmas for parents. Because the government aren’t so much providing free childcare as a free-for-all and a race to the bottom in the childcare market. You’ve got to wonder what kind of childcare MPs and councillors would choose for their own children: nurseries that open the hours the parents want, with qualified and motivated staff who work regular hours and can get to know their children, or providers open when they can afford to be, with minimum staffing levels and a donation bucket to pay for paintbrushes. So much for the value of early years education.

Dear Education Secretary, did your school offer arts subjects?

Dear Ms Greening

I am writing in response to the government’s consultation response on implementing the EBacc, which was finally published on Wednesday, 18 months (nearly five school terms!) after the consultation closed. As a supporter of the BACC for the Future campaign, I was one of those parents who had filed a response to the consultation arguing that there is no evidence to support the use of EBacc as a measure, that it is undermining a broad-based education across the curriculum, limiting access to creative GCSEs, reducing pupil choice and opportunity, and risking our creative industries.

As the government has been forced to acknowledge in this week’s publication, there is a great deal of unease amongst school leaders, teachers, parents, and creative industries, about the impact of continuing to use the EBacc as a performance measure for schools. As your document makes clear, there’s also a huge difficulty in actually implementing the EBacc at required scale because of the shortage of language and other teachers (a fact which is unlikely to be reversed by the government’s ongoing  refusal to end the pay cap on public sector workers). This is presumably why you have pushed back the targets on the proportion of pupils entering the EBacc by a few years, a welcome step. But that doesn’t alter the fact that requiring 75%, 90% or any other % of pupils to take the EBacc limits their school experience and their career choices.  Nor does it add anything meaningful to our understanding of how well schools are meeting pupils’ educational needs.

As you point out, 71% of respondents were concerned about the EBacc reducing curriculum choice. There are clear statistics from organisations – including Ofqual – about the steady decline (8% last year) in students taking arts and technical subjects at GCSE. Limiting GCSE choices makes creative subjects less visible (as is also happening at primary schools as the curriculum narrows to focus excessively on SATs). Less visible subjects quickly become less viable, across the whole curriculum. Looking locally, there are apparently three secondary schools in Suffolk alone who will not be offering music on the curriculum next year. And yet you continue to assert that the arts are important.

There is no shortage of evidence about why access to the arts and creative subjects matters, both for themselves and because of the impact access to the arts has on wellbeing and other areas of study.  But there is a distinct shortage of parents with the resources (whether these be funds, time or prior knowledge) to enable their children to access the arts and other creative subjects outside school, in ways which can help them fulfil their needs and desires. And they shouldn’t be asked to, as that is what school is for. Government is full of people who will have benefited from a broad based education delivered by schools whose curriculum was unimpeded by the EBacc – a performance measure so meaningless it is not valued by Russell Group universities. So please, let the next generation of children have the same experience.   “One system for me, another one for you” is not a good message for our children.

Given that you are faced with growing pressures on our schools and an overwhelming body of responses to the EBacc consultation which clearly opposed its ongoing and increased use, it seems extraordinary that the government didn’t use the last 18 months to quietly abandon the EBacc altogether. For our children’s futures and the future health of our creative industries, please review the decision to continue with the EBacc.

I look forward to your reply.

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.