Government’s levelling-up aims for education ‘must be backed up with action’

·4-min read

The Government’s rhetoric on “levelling up” and the importance of education must be backed up with action, a school leaders’ union chief will urge.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT union, will call on Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi not to exhaust school leaders’ goodwill by making engagement with the profession “nothing more than window dressing”.

His plea will come in a speech on Friday at the union’s conference in London.

Mr Whiteman will highlight the “false and damaging narrative” that some policymakers used amid the pandemic which suggested teachers were “lazy”.

He will call out previous criticism of school leaders and teachers spending too much time on making sure disadvantaged children were fed.

“The people who used those words should be ashamed,” he will say.

Mr Whiteman will call for the Government’s goals for education recovery for children who have missed out on schooling to be more “ambitious”.

In June, the schools catch-up tsar Sir Kevan Collins quit with a stinging condemnation of the Government’s new £1.4 billion education recovery fund.

On Thursday, when challenged over the funding put into helping children, Mr Zahawi pledged that pupils will be caught up with the schooling they missed during Covid-19 by the end of this Parliament.

In a speech to school leaders on Friday, Mr Whiteman will say: “Whilst I am encouraged by the language of levelling up, the language that no child should be left behind, and the language of just how important education is, I am continually left disappointed that the rhetoric is not backed up by action.

“I won’t quickly forget, nor will I fail to remind those in power, of the false and damaging narrative some of them used. Some sought to paint a picture of lazy teachers and lazy school leaders in the middle of the pandemic.

“When actually you, and your colleagues, were working as hard as anybody else in the front line. That was poor judgment. Poor leadership.”

The school leaders’ union chief will say the profession “stands ready to work” with the new Education Secretary, but they must be listened to.

Mr Whiteman will add: “Please don’t exhaust what is left of our goodwill by making that engagement nothing more than window dressing. We have a moment now that we can choose to grasp.

“By genuinely working together we can achieve much-needed change.

“The mistakes and U-turns that characterised the last year and a half almost always came down to a lack of proper consultation with the profession.”

Conservative Party Conference
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi speaking during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester (Peter Byrne/PA)

Mr Zahawi is due to address the union’s conference in London on Saturday.

Ahead of the Education Secretary’s appearance, Mr Whiteman will say: “It would not be right for us to hold him personally responsible for the mistakes of the past. We will all be keen to hear his vision for the future.”

Mr Whiteman will also highlight concerns about school funding, the public sector pay freeze and the challenges of teacher recruitment and retention.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson promised a “levelling-up premium” worth up to £3,000 to encourage talented maths and science teachers to work in areas of the country where they are needed most.

On the policy, Mr Whiteman will say: “It’s time to lift the burden of unnecessary and disproportionate high stakes accountability systems. £3,000 to encourage maths and science teachers into difficult areas is an idea.

“But unless you lift the burdens any progress will be short lived. We would have told you that, Prime Minister, if only you had asked.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “The pandemic has shone a light on the life-changing role that teachers play in children’s lives and we recognise the vital service that headteachers and school staff have provided over the past 18 months.

“Millions of young people are now back in school, which is the best place for their education and wellbeing.

“We have committed to an ambitious, long-term education recovery plan, investing over £3 billion and significantly expanding our tutoring programme to support children and young people to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.

“This is alongside £400 million to support development and training for teachers and staff.”

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