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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.