EDUCATION will be high on the agenda in the run-up to the next General Election.
While the Labour Party is busy formulating its policy, South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck has been on her own fact-finding mission around schools in her constituency.
Since taking office in May, she has visited all but a handful of schools in the area.
Among the things that have impressed her most is the way headteachers are responding to changes brought in by the Government and cuts in funding.
South Tyneside Council is facing a reduction of £381 per pupil in 2013/14 compared with the previous year.
Mrs Lewell-Buck said: “Every headteacher I spoke to was really inspirational. While they had concerns, they had a real can-do attitude. There wasn’t anybody with a defeatist attitude.”
She said the loss of Building Schools for the Future funding is a prime example of how headteachers have dealt with heavy blows.
“A lot of them were due to get upgrades, but with the change of Government in 2010, the programme stopped,” she said.
“But instead of saying ‘OK, we’re stuck here’, they got the kids and staff together and brightened the places up. Some of them you wouldn’t even realise were in a really old building, because they have done so much to make it modern.
“In the ones that have been renovated, the kids have so much pride in their school.”
Education is something the new MP cares deeply about, particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable children and giving them the best start.
Some children in the area start school with no language skills or unable to use the toilet, she said.
She believes Ofsted should bear this in mind when inspecting schools, as there is no benchmark to measure the amount of effort that goes into bringing these children in line with their peers.
She said: “It seems everyone is judged from the same point and that’s not fair because every child is different. When Labour was in power, we did a lot of things around the whole child and emotional development as well as intellectual development, and for me, the two go hand in hand.
“You can’t have a child who is emotionally distraught learning at the optimum level.”
Many of these services have fallen victim to the Government’s austerity measures, she said, including the work of Sure Start.
This puts more pressure on schools to deliver services once provided by outside agencies.
Mrs Lewell-Buck said she also shares headteachers’ concerns about the Government’s planned introduction of free school meals for all infants from next September.
She said: “It is a vote-winning comment, but when you drill down, what it means for schools in deprived areas is their pupil premium is going to be hit really hard, which means they might end up with less money.”
The premium is extra funding given to schools to support disadvantaged pupils, based on the number receiving free school meals.
Mrs Lewell-Buck is keen to tackle another problem that blights disadvantaged communities – low aspirations.
While describing the pupils she has met as diligent, keen to learn and wanting to do well, their hopes and aspirations were quite low.
At the Labour Party conference, she spoke to the North East Chamber of Commerce, which is keen to work on a project with a local school and businesses to get school leavers work-ready.
She said: “The kids here are just as bright as the kids anywhere else, so why are they not getting the same opportunities?”
Mrs Lewell-Buck has so far been impressed with her party’s new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, saying; “He’s hit the ground running.”
Mr Hunt came out in support of parent-led academies last week and said so-called free schools set up under the Coalition Government would remain open under Labour.
Both would give parents and other groups the opportunity to establish schools in high-demand areas, out of local authority control.
It’s a bit of a u-turn from the party’s previous stance, but it is unlikely to be an issue that will affect the South Shields constituency.
Mrs Lewell-Buck said: “We have got excellent schools in South Shields, and surplus places, so why would we need a free school?”
Mr Hunt has also backed performance-related pay for teachers – one of the issues that led to a one-day strike by teachers in the borough on Thursday.
Almost six months into the job, Mrs Lewell-Buck is “absolutely loving” her role as an MP.
“I think it’s the best job in the world,” she said. “There aren’t many jobs where you can make such a difference, nationally, to people’s lives.”