I rejoined the Labour Party on the 1st January this year as my New Year’s resolution, inspired by being able to vote for Keir Starmer and move on from five years of Corbyn. After leaving the party in frustration, when it turned its back on electability, I now feel hope again after a decade of Conservative rule and the stark impact it has had on the life chances of children, in particular those from low income backgrounds.
While Keir’s 10 key leadership pledges provide a solid foundation for moving back to Government, I disagree with prioritising the policy on tuition fees. For me, the main focus of Labour’s education offer should not be scrapping fees, but instead ramping up investment in a child’s earliest years in education. Proper funding for nursery and primary education should not be absent from our key pledges and the long term battle to win the support of students.
As an Assistant Head, helping to turn around a school rated ‘Requires Improvement’ by Ofsted in an area with high social deprivation and levels of English as an Additional Language, I know the importance of education, particularly of those critical first years. You can see that importance now, during the current extraordinary crisis, schools playing a vital role in staying open for key workers and vulnerable children, allowing NHS staff to focus on saving lives.
During my time as a teacher, I have seen children come into school hungry— unable to learn and in need of vital breakfast club provision. I have seen a child who, after moving to the UK, was housed for over a year with his family of eight in a two room hostel. I have seen bright children from deprived backgrounds starting school full of enthusiasm and a love of learning, but by Year 3 falling behind their less able, middle class peers. We know the depressing life chances statistics, figures often published by The Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Foundation.
The IFS calculates that abolishing tuition fees would cost the Treasury around £11 billion a year and future highest-earning graduates would benefit most. As a school teacher, I dream of how that money could be better spent. According to the OECD, disadvantaged children gain most from extra early years investment. That £11 billion could be used to increase the pupil premium grant for children on free school meals, providing more high-quality teaching and focused interventions to close the attainment gap of disadvantaged children in phonics and maths.
In these uncertain times, with the economic fallout from Covid-19 yet to be fully realised, a future Labour policy platform must ensure scarce resources are spent where it matters most. A policy of scrapping tuition fees is not a progressive or fair use of this money. The most socially just spend is on making sure all children, from the blocks of flats around my school to the deprived seaside community I grew up in, get the best start during their crucial early years. To use a slogan from our most successful period in Government, in which record amounts of investment in early years and education were made, Every Child Matters.
Oliver Parsons is an Assistant Head of a primary school in North London and previously worked in Parliament for Hilary Armstrong MP, working on the 2010 Labour Party Children’s Manifesto. He also served as a school governor for five years. He has recently joined Twitter, @OliverHParsons