I was politicised by my experience of inequality in the education system, by the stark differences between my friends’ private schools and mine. I went to school in London in the 1980s, in middle of the battle between Ken Livingstone and Margaret Thatcher as she abolished, first the GLC, then the Inner London Education Authority.
There were a lot of teachers’ strikes, for a time we operated a three-day week. There were no extra-curricular activities. On top of that, my school had asbestos so for a whole year we were taken to another school by bus; the disruption was huge, we missed over an hour of school a day. We didn’t achieve what we were capable of. At my final year careers meeting, I was asked what Youth Training Scheme I wanted to apply for. There was no expectation of doing A-levels, let alone going to University.
This was inner city state education in the 1980s. It was transformed by successive Labour Governments driven by the now famous mantra of education education education.
They recognised that an education system that supports each child to achieve their potential is as precious to our society as a health service that cares for all citizens equally no matter their ability to pay. Yet as Coronavirus has forced children out of the classroom it has all but shut down our state education system. The Sutton Trust, UCL and the Children’s Commissioner have all published shocking statistics showing how little home learning is taking place for children in the state sector. Predictably, children from the most deprived areas and backgrounds are getting the least amount of education, with around 20% getting none at all.
The Government has set no minimum standards for what schools should be providing, given Ofsted no remit to investigate, produced no plan and demonstrated little ambition to keep the nation learning. Besides pointing teachers and parents to available online provision and a laughably slow attempt to get technology to kids who have none, what have they done to ensure that all children are getting the education they deserve and why aren’t we angry at their complacency?
Given the Government’s complete failure and lack of ambition, where is the public and political outrage? Why are we not jumping up and down about the huge disparities in education provision that our children are currently getting? Why are we not screaming about the failure to get technology to children so they can learn from home, nearly three months after lockdown? Why has there not been a national recall for former teachers to rally to the cause? And where is the National Champion tasked with leading this critical national effort, to drive up standards, and encourage innovation and collaboration in remote learning for all children.
There seems to have been an all-consuming focus on the challenges of getting kids physically back to school, despite the likelihood of many more months of disruption, and not nearly enough focus on how we can deliver high quality education to all children during this crisis.
Of course we must protect the most vulnerable, but it is not enough for our kids to just survive this crisis, we must also help them to thrive. The education system is not just there to protect children, it also needs to challenge and inspire them too. Labour needs to champion the right of all children to learn to ensure that this crisis does not entrench privilege, restrict social mobility and damage the life chances of a generation.
We need to lead a public debate about how we can ensure that all children can continue their learning, meet their normal milestones and achieve their potential, we must ensure that no child is left behind.
There is nothing that drives me and angers me as much as seeing inequality flourish in our education system and nothing more frustrating than seeing a lack of aspiration for our children from our political leaders.
I was let down by the education system in the 1980s and I won’t stand by and let history repeat itself— not only for my children but for the millions of other kids that deserve the opportunity to be the best they can be too.
We cannot wait for schools to reopen in order to restart our education system. We need to be more ambitious than that. We need another plan and we need it quickly.
Emily Wallace is a freelance strategic communications consultant and the Vauxhall CLP Policy Officer. She tweets @emilywallace25