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Dear Bridget, Here’s what schools really hope you’ll lead on

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your electoral success! Your in-tray must be daunting, but I hope you might find time to consider five pleas as you confront the many challenges facing our education system.

Show that you value the workforce

This might seem obvious, but we have not always seen it from your predecessors. I have lost track of the number of times guidance has been issued by the DfE during the school holiday, for example, causing unnecessary stress for staff in schools. The same goes for the tendency for titbits to be briefed to friendly newspapers before a policy is released officially.

You will not be able to keep the whole teaching profession happy all the time, but if you treat us with courtesy and use your voice to build public esteem for the school workforce you will have an invaluable reserve of goodwill.

Don’t weaponise education policy

Recent government ministers have sometimes appeared more interested in using education policy to score political points than to improve education. They have often relied on non-statutory guidance to communicate expectations, which looks suspiciously like a cop-out from the chalkface. Guidance on gender questioning children, for example, left schools having to choose between ignoring the DfE and opening themselves up to potential legal challenges.

Some issues are challenging enough to manage without anyone seeking to stoke flames. Education policy should address the most pressing problems in a proportionate way and should be possible to implement without breaking the law.

The best policy might not be education policy

Schools can make a huge difference to the lives of young people, but they cannot fix social problems alone. Since the years of austerity, much of the support network around schools, such as specialist provision for mental health, has deteriorated or disappeared, and school staff have been left picking up the pieces.

Rebuilding in this area and taking measures to alleviate child poverty, such as lifting the two-child benefit cap, would do more to enable young people to make the most of their educational opportunities than any reforms aimed at the education system itself.

Don’t throw away everything the Tories did

There have been some noteworthy successes in education over the past fourteen years. Among those, hard-won improvements in teaching have helped to propel England up the international rankings in reading and maths. They should be secured, not swept away.

Labour’s manifesto gave cause for confidence that the party has recognised and will build on developments in areas like curriculum design. This is encouraging in advance of your promised curriculum and assessment review, since evidence suggests it would be unwise to emulate Scottish and Welsh moves towards cross-curricular themes and skills at the expense of academic subjects.

Educational time runs slower than political time

Since the children about to finish year six first joined their reception classes, we have had nine incumbents in your office. Unsurprisingly, these politicians have had little opportunity to do more than chase fleeting news cycles and social media trends.

By contrast, meaningful school improvement is often incremental and workforce expertise takes time to build. For this reason we desperately need better retention of current teachers, not just recruitment of new ones. We also need politicians who are willing to forgo an eye-catching headline in favour of sowing seeds which will bear fruit in the long-run, such as reforming SEND provision.

I hope Labour ministers will be given more time to make their mark, but however long you are in post, please prioritise policy which will bring sustainable benefits.

Your manifesto represents a promising starting point, although more will be needed to secure a lasting educational legacy. I wish you the very best of luck in this endeavour, and I know that a vast number of my colleagues across the profession do too.

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