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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide