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

Photo: Getty
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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