Honouring the teachers across Penistone and Stocksbridge
Today, on World Teachers' Day I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to all the teachers across Penistone and Stocksbridge, and all around the UK.
This has been an exceptionally difficult year for the teaching profession, who have had to adapt to new ways of working in a very short space of time, often whilst juggling caring for their own children or elderly relatives, or managing their own health concerns.
Teachers deserve our gratitude and admiration for the huge commitment that they have shown.
Lockdown has shown us just how much our children need school, and in particular how much they value regular face-to-face contact with their teachers. As parents, we put extraordinary faith in our children’s teachers, trusting them not only to teach our children what they need to know to pass exams and gain skills, but also to look out for our children’s physical and emotional wellbeing. As a former teacher, I know that this is no easy task.
When faced with a class of 30 children, each with their own unique experiences and attitudes to education, delivering effective teaching whilst also providing pastoral support is a real challenge. As a secondary school science teacher, I taught over 200 different children each week and, whilst a good teacher can deliver consistently good lessons that cater for all abilities, it is impossible to ‘know’ every student like we know our own children.
Our teachers do an extraordinary job, routinely working long hours and going above and beyond to do their best for our children.
But despite our teachers’ hard work, we still have many schools – particularly in the North of England – where educational outcomes lag far behind schools in other areas. Just like our economy and our infrastructure, there are regions of the UK that have been ‘left behind’ in education, training and job prospects. One of this Government’s key commitments is to ‘Level Up’ and this means looking at why children in some parts of this country don’t make the same progress as those in other areas.
I believe that the first step towards ‘Levelling Up’ education is to be honest about what our teachers and schools can - and can’t – be expected to do.
Teachers can offer excellent teaching, they can coach students to pass exams, they can inspire and give confidence to our children and young people. But what teachers can’t do is to solve the very many other challenges that so many young people face in our left behind areas. It doesn’t matter how well qualified or talented a teacher is, they can’t make up for the lack of opportunities and role models for children growing up in towns where industry has declined and where skilled jobs are now few and far between. Teachers can’t ever fully compensate for the difficulties faced by young people whose home lives are chaotic, or whose relationships with the adults in their lives may be dysfunctional.
Exam grades don’t just reflect the quality of teaching; they are strongly related to a whole host of other factors that teachers can’t – and should not be expected to - control.
But even passing exams is no guarantee of future success, because research shows the quality of someone’s social networks and relational capital are the biggest indicators of whether or not they will succeed in securing a good job, by which I mean work that is secure, well paid, skilled, fulfilling and with opportunity for progression. It doesn’t matter how inspirational a teacher is, if we are really going to ‘Level Up’ opportunities for our young people, we need to find a way to give disadvantaged students relevant work experiences and help them grow relationships that will lead to a successful future.
As a society we should honour our teachers and be grateful for the important job they do. And we should also be careful not to expect schools to solve all the challenges that students face but instead take a collaborative community approach to nurturing our young people and making sure that every child, no matter where they are born, has access to local opportunities.
In her ground-breaking book ‘Radical Help’, Hilary Cottam explores some of these themes and looks at how the whole community can help young people to overcome these barriers and I will be working with colleagues in the Levelling Up Taskforce to look at how we make sure that local communities are at the heart of the Levelling Up agenda.
Spreading opportunities for young people equally across the UK is not going to be easy. But I passionately believe that it is up to all of us - Government, civil society, communities, schools and individuals - to give this issue our full attention. The next generation is depending on us.