Teach First shows how to overcome educational disadvantage

It is testament to the leadership of Teach First that it has been so successful in securing cross-party support, says shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg.

This week, the charity Teach First launched the Every Child Can campaign. Two in five children from deprived backgrounds do not reach the expected levels in maths and English by the time they leave school. Every Child Can is about changing this. It’s part of Teach First’s principal vision - to eradicate educational disadvantage so that every child can realise their potential, irrespective of their background.

In 2002 I was the minister for schools at the Department for Education and Skills, as it was then. One of my first decisions as minister was agreeing funding for an initiative called Teach First. When I was approached by Brett Wigdortz, the founder, I knew that his idea held a lot of promise. However, I can’t say I anticipated the success story that Teach First has proven to be. I doubt in his wildest dreams not even Brett imagined the charity would come this far.

The challenge facing Brett and his team was a monumental one. The formula was a simple one, a most noble one. Attract top performing graduates into teaching in the most challenging areas in the country to address the attainment gap - the difference in educational outcomes between children from richer and poorer backgrounds.

In government, Labour’s investment and reform programme in education began to narrow this gap. But of course, the challenge of closing the gap completely remains one of the greatest for the future long term prosperity of our country. It is a testament to the leadership of Teach First that it has been so successful in securing cross-party support. I welcome the fact that all three main political parties remain committed to the charity.

Last year, I spoke at Challenge 2012, a conference held by Teach First to celebrate its tenth anniversary. It was there that it launched the 2022 Impact Goals setting out the changes that it wants to see in education, working with others to achieve these over the next decade. These goals set out a commitment to closing the gap and creating a more equal society. It is a shame on all of our houses that only two in five children from the least well-off backgrounds- those who are eligible for free school meals- achieve the expected level of educational attainment of 5 GCSEs at A*- C (including Maths and English) at 16. Because while qualifications do not control our destiny, educational attainment shapes our prospects and outlooks.

The goals commit Teach First –working in partnership – to playing its part in closing the gap at 11 in reading and writing and at 16 for GCSE results; to increase educational participation rates beyond the compulsory age; to widen access to the most selective universities; and to ensure that all students develop the key strengths that will enable them to become the masters of their own destiny. We should all sign up to achieving these goals. I have given my commitment.

That is why I agreed last week to join the Teach First team and spend an afternoon in Holly Lodge Girls College in Liverpool to deliver an English lesson to Year 9 pupils. The aim of the lesson was to get the Year 9 pupils to understand and to use the art of persuasion. It was a hugely uplifting experience, watching and seeing the pupils crafting and delivering their arguments on the debate about whether or not we should lengthen the school day. These are the skills that young people need as they leave school and college and seek employment and further study. It’s great that the Impact Goals reflect the importance of rigour in maths and English but also that they reflect the crucial focus on resilience and character development and that their teachers are trained to deliver this across the curriculum.

I visit many schools in my day job but to be the teacher for an hour was an incredible insight into the power and influence teachers can have over the aspirations of young people.

Overcoming educational disadvantage is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy. Last week shone the spotlight on this challenge as we all sign up for the long journey ahead.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.