The Shadow Education Secretary spent this afternoon visiting Wetherby High School, and students and teachers made the most of their time with the high profile visitor.
Tristram Hunt MP had lunch with staff and met head boy Sam Kerry and head girl Emma Lees, who later hosted a Q&A session.
In a circle with Mr Hunt, a group of more than 10 students asked the MP about changes to the exam system, radicalisation in schools, and equality between men and women.
Asked about recent changes to education, Mr Hunt said there were some government policies with which he was not happy, but that consistency is very important.
Alterations to GCSE exams, for example, would be maintained for a time, however the free school programme would be stopped because ‘it means investment is not going where it is needed’.
“What you can’t do every time there is a change of government is change the exam system because teachers would go up the wall - there needs to be stability,” he said.
Strong congratulations go to the leadership team here and the teaching community for stepping up to the plate.Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt MP
“The balance I always have to strike is between stability of the education system versus reordering or rectifying some of the changes we are not so happy with.
“More often than not I am coming down on the side of stability because I think what drives teachers mad is ministers coming in and changing things and them having to play catch up with the new decisions.
“Even if there are concerns, some stability in the system is important and I do think moving away from multiple entries is not a bad reform because schools were spending often too much money and sometimes too much time on entering students for examinations.
“But I more than understand those schools who use that system to develop a pathway for success for more challenging pupils and we just have to think more carefully about how we can do that within the constraints.”
Mr Hunt, who is also the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, spoke over lunch with Wetherby High’s executive headteacher Simon Flowers, acting headteacher Lucie Lakin, and chair of governors Cindy Bentley.
After the Q&A that followed, he said he was thoroughly impressed with both the school pupils.
He said: “It was a pleasure to be invited here because this is a school going through an interesting transition and it shows the importance of really effective leadership and quality teaching and how in the absence of that children are being let down, but when you put it in you have a good result.
“Strong congratulations go to the leadership team here and the teaching community for stepping up to the plate.
“It is interesting that some teachers who didn’t have the strength of leadership before now feel much more confident in their abilities to deliver results.
“They are not stopping the sport or the music or any creative subjects, they are doing all of it and showing how you can.
“You can achieve all of this without necessarily having massive structural reform and change and actually the local authority here has worked well to broker in agreement with a strong head and it is moving in the right direction.”
The Shadow Education Secretary was invited to the school by the Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) for Elmet and Rothwell Veronica King, who also took part in the Q&A.
She said: “The reason I am in Labour is because of education. Both of my parents are teachers and I know it from their point of view of the importance of the investment made by Labour and so much of that has gone backwards under this government.
“I think for so many parents here there is no more important issue than education and there are so many lines in the sand between Labour and Conservatives on protecting the budget and making class sizes smaller.
“I know morale is really low among teachers and I understand how hard they work and how concerned they are because there is a lot at stake.”
After the session was over, Mr Hunt and Mrs King spoke with the Wetherby News about what is important in education, including school buildings in urgent need of repairing, rebuilding, or updating.
Mr Hunt said: “There is a frustration when I go around that cash for repairs and rebuilding was not necessarily spread effectively or fairly, so we will look carefully at that. There is a backlog of repairs to make.
“On a policy point, in the future this is a government that wants to slash the education department budget. The Labour Party will secure the education budget in real terms so there are clear choices in this election between supporting teachers and schools like Wetherby High, or returning to the state it used to be before the last Labour government and we don’t want that.”
Mrs King added: “One of the things I am really keen to do, which is why I am here, is visit schools and I will be keen to meet with as many teachers and headteachers as I can, not only over the coming weeks but as part of working on those relationships, which is one of the early things I would want to do as MP, to find out what matters most to them.”
As an interesting aside, during the Q&A all members of the circle were asked what their favourite sweet was as part of an ice-breaker.
Mr Hunt said he liked Milky Way, while Mrs King said she was quite partial to a Malteser.
After the visit, Mr Flowers said the visit was a chance for the students to talk about politics and issues, and to ‘have their voices heard’.
“It is not often children get the opportunity to meet Members of Parliament and ask them questions and be asked questions by them,” he said.
“It was a great opportunity to a group of students at Wetherby High School to enjoy a conversation about local and national politics.
“We really like to encourage children to better understand the world they live in and the opportunities they have to have their voice heard, and we work hard to make sure that inside the schools with our coaching programme our children know they are listened to and that it is their duty to listen.”
Mrs Lakin added: “It was a fantastic opportunity for the children to show how proud they are to be a member of Wetherby High School and also be a member of the local community.
“One of the aspects of our work is not just securing academic achievement for the children but developing them as active, responsible citizens.
“The activities we like to do give them an opportunity to talk about issues that matter to them and their local community.
“One of the key themes for Wetherby High is about developing confident learners as well as responsible citizens and today was a wonderful chance for them to handle a high profile situation with enthusiasm and articulate their thoughts with such impressive confidence.
“We are really proud that Mr Hunt said how impressed he was with the students and of the characteristics we encourage in our children.”
Mrs Bentley said: “I am absolutely delighted to welcome visitors to the school just to show how much progress has been made since May.
“I think we are well on the way now to becoming an outstanding school. More than that, I think it is the fact that the focus is entirely on what is best for the students.”