Jonathan Gullis: Our reforms to teacher training put us on the side of trainees, pupils and taxpayers

20 Jul

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.

The great conservative education reforms of the last decade have seen us raise standards on behalf of pupils and parents.

We have freed failing schools from the grips of local authority control, handing powers to transformative multi-academy trusts. The phonics revolution means more than nine in ten children are reading fluently by age seven. And we have restored rigour and academic discipline to schools, ensuring children leave school equipped with the cultural capital that is their rightful inheritance.

And at almost every stage, unions and entrenched interest groups have opposed our successful reforms.

Take phonics, for example. England achieved its highest-ever ranking in the international literacy league tables thanks to Nick Gibb’s phonics reforms. But in 2011, the teaching unions and Labour were implacably opposed. Have we ever heard retractions from Mary Bousted, Lisa Nandy and their co-signatories to this letter opposing the introduction of the phonics test as ‘of benefit to no one’?

This is just one more example of the unions acting in a clearly politicised manner. The latest and most egregious example of this obstructionist attitude came during the pandemic, when the National Education Union, as led by Bousted and Kevin Courtney, acted against the interests of children and parents to make home learning harder and to prevent schools opening.

The last unreformed area of the school system is teacher training – but not for long.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister announced 500,000 teacher training programmes would be delivered this Parliament, significantly raising the quality of teaching in schools. Important reforms are already being delivered, providing in-school training for teachers in the first two years in the classroom, as well as specialist training for more experienced teachers looking to progress in their careers. These reforms are instilling rigour into teacher CPD, mirroring the successful curriculum reforms of the last decade.

The final frontier is initial teacher training – most often a year-long PGCE. Despite some reforms at the beginning of the last decade, this introduction to teaching remains stubbornly in the grips of unreformed university education departments. Schools do now play a greater role in teacher training, but more than four in five would-be teachers must jump through the hoops of university education departments before beginning their careers.

Prior to my eight years in teaching, I did my own PGCE at the Institute of Education. Too often, training is low-quality and riddled with ideology. Would-be teachers expecting to learn how to deal with unruly pupils and how to inspire a passion for their subject are instead expected to regurgitate ideological mumbo-jumbo in their essays. Ideological induction over, they are then left to sink or swim in the classroom. There is far too little practical training.

That is why the Government’s consultation on the review of initial teacher training is so welcome. The reforms would guarantee would-be teachers a trained in-school mentor, at least 38 weeks of training, and an intensive four-week placement – as part of 28 weeks in schools – designed to hone and refine key classroom skills. The government’s expert group report can be read in full here.

As an ex-teacher I have to say I can find very little to disagree with. In a shocking development, even Bousted and the other teaching union leaders accept there is merit to these reforms. And yet, the teaching unions and their allies in university education departments have been fuming since the Government launched its consultation a fortnight ago.

The reason: the most important component of the reforms is the requirement for all initial teacher training providers to be reaccredited. In exchange for the almost £10k per trainee they charge, the Government believes teacher training institutions should have to prove they are delivering the reasonable minimum quality requirements set out by their review.

The new requirement puts the Government on the side of trainee teachers, pupils and taxpayers, demanding a modest minimum quality of training in exchange for generous funding. Predictably, the education blob is howling once again, with the usual set of hysterical claims that accompany every challenge to the status quo.

According to the teaching unions the mere fact of consulting on these reforms risks teacher supply. And rather than being what teacher training should at its core be about, requiring universities to provide basic behaviour management and pedagogical training is a threat to academic freedom – according to university education departments.

The truth is far more mundane. The gravy train of taxpayer-funded ideological training is at an end, as it should be. From now on, training will have to serve the trainee and their future pupils. But these are typically moderate and sensible conservative reforms that put government on the side of people and taxpayers, rowing back on the prevailing ideological orthodoxy of unions and universities.

Jonathan Gullis: The blight of Covid gives us new reason to cut back school holidays

16 Nov

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and a member of the Education Select Committee. He was previously a secondary school teacher.

The Government has rightly decided to extend free school meals for the holidays, and give hard-pressed families reassurance that their kids will be fed this winter. But at a time when many kids are falling behind due to the pandemic and many families are struggling, we should go further.

It is time to cut school holidays, to give disadvantaged students time to catch up with their peers after long gaps in learning due to covid and to further ease the pressure on family finances. We could cut two weeks from the long summer break, and even shave a few days off at Christmas and Easter, to help children reclaim their futures.

As a former teacher, I know the problems that long holidays create for poorer families. Holiday learning loss contributes to widening attainment gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students. Evidence gathered during the lockdown in April shows that pupils were doing on average two and a half hours of school work per day.

When broken down based on eligibility for free school meals a shocking gap can be observed. Around a quarter of pupils eligible for free school meals spent on average no time or under an hour on schooling compared with 18 per cent of those students not eligible.

The same survey found that roughly a fifth of free school meal pupils had no access to a computer at home, compared to seven per cent for other students. Another survey found that some pupils could return to school having made only 70 per cent progress compared to a normal year in reading and only 50 per cent in maths.

Another factor contributing to the attainment gap is the home environment, and specifically the involvement (or lack of) parents in a child’s educational development. Disadvantaged parents are less likely to support children because they may be in work, or lack the money to pay for tutoring, learning software or homework clubs.

These combined factors contribute to disadvantaged children falling behind their peers during long holiday breaks. Studies have found that only after seven weeks of teaching in the autumn do some children exceed the level of education they achieved prior to the summer.

And that’s before the impact on family finances. The average cost of holiday childcare in the UK is £133 per week. Between 2003 and 2015, nursery costs increased by 77 per cent while earnings have remained roughly the same. It is estimated that the loss of free school meals adds between £30 and £40 per week to parents’ outgoings during school holidays.

There is also evidence that long school holidays cause an increase in child poverty. Evidence from charities suggests that food bank use accelerates significantly among families during the long summer holidays as they struggle to feed their children every day. Every year, three million children are at risk of going hungry over the summer period every year.

Long periods out of school also have a knock on effect on children’s physical health. Evidence shows that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds suffered a greater loss of fitness following the summer holidays. The poorest quarter of kids see a drop in their fitness levels 18 times greater than the wealthiest 25 per cent over the summer.

There is wide variation the length of school holidays around the world. In some parts of Asia, including high performing countries like South Korea and Japan, students are only on summer holiday for four weeks, whereas in Italy and Portugal pupils are typically out of school for up to 13 weeks.

A number of academics have made the case for shorter summer holidays, including Professor Tina Hascher of the University of Bern, who has argued that four weeks of summer holiday should be enough to ensure pupils, teachers and parents are able to enjoy a degree of respite whilst mitigating the effects of the summer slide in learning.

When I was a teacher, I recognised the value of the summer break. It is an important time for students to rest and recover after a long academic year. But, I also know from experience the difficulty some students face when they start the year in September after a long summer of losing academic ground.

Lockdown has taught us the difficulties that come with long stints away from the classroom, with learning suffering, health suffering, families struggling financially and a widening attainment gap between well off and disadvantaged students.

This is why I am proposing that the Government introduce a shorter summer break of four weeks from Summer 2021, and consider reducing other holidays, including the upcoming Christmas break. These new weeks of learning should be used for structured activities and education in the term-time either side.

We cannot change the past. The time that has been lost has been lost. But we can make up for that lost time. Reducing the length of school holidays will help close this attainment gap, while reducing the burden on working families.

Jonathan Gullis: At last, we have an Education Secretary willing to say that the emperor has no clothes

11 Jul

Jonathan Gullis is the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North. He was previously a secondary school teacher.

A young person in my constituency looking for a decent job, a successful career, and a rewarding future, now has a government more determined to help them succeed. The Prime Minister’s inspiring speech in Dudley set out our ambitions to bounce back better. The Chancellor’s jobs plan sets out imaginative financial support for employers who want to take on a trainee or an apprentice. With £2.1 billion for six-month work placements, cash incentives of £2,000 to take on young apprentices and a massive expansion of traineeships, the Government will be investing in skills and productivity as it gets people back to work. Then came the speech from Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, on the “forgotten 50 per cent” which signalled the start of a generational change in education for the over 16s.

Half of our young people have been “forgotten” because the focus has been, for far too long, on getting 50 per cent of them into universities. Yet around a third of graduates are in non-graduate jobs. In his speech, Gavin Williamson makes a passionate case for expanding those excellent non-university outcomes and opportunities with a complete overhaul of the post-18 education system. Not tinkering at the edges but deep structural change. German-style employer-led qualifications that create clear links between curriculum and career. The first T levels in Childcare and Education, Construction, and Digital, will be rolled out in September. Microsoft and Deloitte have had direct involvement in the standards and design of the digital T level. That means young people complete a course, the equivalent of an A level, that fully prepares them for a good job and a decent wage. It’s worth noting that five years after completion, a higher technical apprentice earns more than the average graduate.

Williamson’s announcement yesterday adds more detail to the planned FE White Paper that was first announced in May to the Education Select Committee, of which I am a member. I look forward to seeing our plans to transform further education colleges to be leading centres of excellence for their region, develop higher technical qualifications that will be seen as excellent alternatives to degrees, and take a scythe to the confusion of low quality and duplicated qualifications that exist at present. £200 million has been fast-tracked out of £1.5 billion announced in the spring to help refurbish and rebuild FE colleges this year and the Government must ensure this is deployed as rapidly as possible, to upgrade our colleges and get our construction sector working.

This is about cultural change. In Williamson, we have an Education Secretary who is at last willing to say that the emperor has no clothes. A university system where 34 per cent of graduates don’t get graduate jobs, that subsidises unlimited courses in media studies, and where you can get a 2:1 degree without a GCSE in English and Maths does not and cannot deliver the skills that this nation needs. We need to reject the snobbish attitudes that made our children feel that if they didn’t go to university then they had somehow failed. Abolishing the Blairite target to send 50 per cent of young people to university is totemic: it is a Conservative government that will deliver better education, leading directly to better skills and good jobs.

What we have seen from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and the Education Secretary is a government taking real action, spending significant amounts of money to deliver more choices, more chances, and more careers, to young people in Stoke-on-Trent, and to countless other areas in the Midlands and North.

A government that is willing to challenge the established orthodoxies that hold young people back and entrench disadvantage across the country – and to deliver for the people and communities that lent us their vote for the first time in 2019. When we came into Government in 2010, we delivered a series of educational reforms that embedded high standards, accountability, and good discipline, in the school system, sound Conservative principles that have benefitted millions of children. Now, if we follow through on the promises of the last two weeks, we have the opportunity to deliver a set of solid Conservative policies for the post-18 system that will have a similarly beneficial impact for our country.