Mark Lehain, who is 41 and a Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Newcastle-upon-Tyne North, reflects on the challenges of being a Tory in education over the past few years. As a former maths teacher, Lehain is a torchbearer for the Conservatives’ academy and free school policy. He founded and led one of the first free secondary schools, the Bedford free school, then left it to head up PTE, the Parents and Teachers for Excellence group. The group campaigns for stricter discipline and more factual teaching in the curriculum. Lehain advocates for the reform of the curriculum and exam system while the academy program is about enabling consistent school teacher and leader improvement without interference from local councils and politicians. He is a father of four girls who attend state schools. Although he opposes grammar schools, Lehain sees no point in dismantling grammar schools that are already in place. As for independent schools, he believes parents have the right to decide how to educate their children. Although Lehain admits that teacher recruitment and retention have gotten more difficult he believes it is a problem across the developed world. Lehain argues that heavy workload is no longer caused by the Department for Education or Ofsted, stating that headteachers have been given the power to reduce workload and improve behaviour. Moreover, Lehain argues that this will make a massive difference, as well as raising teacher starting salaries to £30,000. In terms of school funding, Lehain believes that education was well protected compared to other parts of the public sector when there was little money in 2010. The public finances are now on a more stable footing, and there will be an extra £14bn over three years. This will be used to help level up the lowest-funded parts of the country where schools get less money because of historical funding inequalities in the funding formula. Lehain emphasises that education funding primarily goes towards staff pay and that, compared to many people in the country, teachers are well paid with good pensions. He argues that we have to look at the big picture even though his comments about funding may generate controversy.
Jackie Schneider, a Labour PPC for Wimbledon, argues that the disproportionate emphasis on testing and league tables is causing schools to lose sight of their vital role in helping children reach their full potential. As a primary music teacher, Schneider speaks from experience when advocating for the abolition of tuition fees and public investment in lifelong learning. She argues that education should be for life and a public good, not a way of separating the “sheep from the goats” or a route to the highest-paying jobs. Schneider’s mother missed out on education and felt undeserving of anything other than a low-skilled job until she started night school. Schneider supports lifelong learning, and it is crucial to her vision of an education system that includes everyone. She is also concerned by the difficulty parents of disabled children are experiencing to ensure their children can receive an education. Furthermore, she is disappointed in the Conservative government’s focus on forced academisation and free school programs and believes that this has caused damage to local authorities. Schneider is winning hearts in the borough of Merton, where she works as a primary school music teacher. The award-winner has received unpaid leave from her fantastic school so she can run as a PPC for this election.
At this year’s Labour Party conference, a decision was made to end private schools and reintegrate students into the public sector. Despite understanding the "cry from the heart" that calls for an end to the segregation of children by wealth, Schneider is not demanding the closure of all private schools. Instead, she wants to remove their charitable status and ensure they pay their taxes.
Donna Wallace is a secondary history teacher who is disappointed with the state of public education. While she advocates for lifelong learning and has taken courses herself, she has found that constant changes to the curriculum make it difficult for teachers to keep up. On top of this, schools are in desperate need of more funding to keep up with the growing number of students with learning difficulties. Wallace’s Green Party promises to put free schools and academies back under the control of local authorities.
Lee Howgate, a Liberal Democrat, and assistant headteacher at a community school, is concerned about the level of funding Boris Johnson is promising for education. He believes that while the £14bn over three years sounds impressive, it would only bring schools back to the level of funding they had in 2015 by 2023. This would be especially irrelevant if we face a hard Brexit. Howgate is also worried about the state of the community as a whole, with the funding cuts affecting families’ ability to care for their children’s’ basic needs. Boris Johnson may claim to be the "candyman" for education, but it is not enough to make up for the inequalities faced by schools in areas like Devon.
Our plans include the abolishment of Ofsted right from the start and the cessation of the harmful practice of narrowing the curriculum and causing students to learn solely for the purpose of passing exams. What we ought to prioritize is to cultivate an environment that inspires intellectual curiosity and creativity, thus transforming our education system from a mere qualifications system to a well-rounded one.
With regards to higher education, we will prioritize bringing back maintenance grants and revamping the loan system to ensure fair repayment based on earnings levels. Our current interest rates are nothing but a burden imposed on students, charging them at 5.4% while they are still studying is unacceptable!