By Janet Szpakowski
THERE was an empty chair at the Education Election Hustings on Monday evening at Passmores Academy as Robert Halfon failed to attend the hustings/forum.
Some weeks ago, Rhys Martin, prganiser for the Eastern region of the National Education Union (NEU), had invited all three candidates to attend and to provide dates that were convenient for them. Robert Halfon, Conservative, claimed he was unavailable although he was spotted by several members of the audience as they made their way to the meeting, outside the Shell garage on the A414, standing with his election placards.
Rhys Martin opened the meeting with a presentation of how the crisis in school funding will affect Harlow schools. He pointed out that Passmores Academy itself would have a shortfall of £808,042 in real terms in comparison with 2015. This, in effect, means a cut of £743 per pupil. He also said that the School Cuts Campaign has called on candidates across the country to pledge that, if elected, they will not vote for school cuts. For Harlow, both Laura McAlpine and Charlotte Cane have made this pledge. Robert Halfon has not.
The audience was comprised mainly of teachers but there were also others who had previously worked in education or who had come along through a concern for their own children’s or grandchildren’s future. The hustings was organised as a forum in which both candidates who attended; Laura McAlpine (Labour) and Charlotte Cane (Liberal Democrat) were invited to give brief speeches about their parties’ policies for education followed by a question and answer session for the audience. This developed into a discussion which focussed not just on the funding crisis but also on the system of Academies which means schools are in competition with each other through league tables and children in some schools have been ‘off rolled’ so that they do not adversely affect schools’ results.
Other issues debated were OFSTED, target setting (for students and teachers), support for children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND), class sizes, SATs, GCSEs, workload and teacher stress and pupils’ challenging behaviour which it was felt often resulted from poverty and other social issues causing mental distress and that, after years of cuts, there was little support available from other agencies.
Both Labour and Liberal Democrat policies appeared, from the candidates’ responses to questions, to be broadly similar although only Laura McAlpine promised that Labour will return Academies to Local Authority control. She also stressed Labour’s plans for a National Education Service providing free education from pre-school through to University students and for continuing adult education classes reminding the audience of the adult education centre that used to exist at Rivermill, which had benefitted her own family.
After the meeting the two candidates remained to speak to members of the audience individually about their concerns.
Murray Sackwild is General Secretary of the local West Essex district of the NEU and is also a member of the Union’s National Executive as well as a Labour Party member. He was present in the audience and contributed to the discussion. After the meeting when asked for a quote, he said that Laura McAlpine’s explanation of Labour’s Education Policy was very close to NEU policy and that he felt that she had ‘won’ the debate, “with her in depth knowledge and clear understanding of current education issues. She answered questions from the floor with honesty and compassion and without resorting to clichés. Despite having been Chair of the Parliamentary Select Education Committee, Robert Halfon didn’t turn up to face teachers and other members of the public interested in the future of Harlow schools”.
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