Labour has let us down

Teachers who voted for Blair last time have become disillusioned, a survey commissioned by <i>The Independent</i> reveals
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The Independent Online

If teachers are anything to go by, next week's general election could see a much more significant swing from Labour towards the Liberal Democrats than is currently predicted.

If teachers are anything to go by, next week's general election could see a much more significant swing from Labour towards the Liberal Democrats than is currently predicted.

According to a survey conducted for The Independent by the website, an educational research and evaluation service, almost half the teachers who voted for Labour at the last election won't be doing so this time. And the Liberal Democrats appear to be picking up the majority of these disenchanted voters - although some say they will not decide how to vote until the day itself.

The teachers and related educational professionals who contributed to the survey acknowledge that Labour has put more resources into schools, but they are fed up with endless initiatives, with discipline problems and teaching children with special needs in mainstream classes.

And even committed Labour voters are starting to doubt their party's line on education. Leo Gilbert, head of English at Plashet School, in east London, strongly believes that teachers are much more valued today. "There's more money in schools, the improved pay for teachers in London has been good, and where I teach in Newham, inclusion works well because it's being done properly," he says. "I do think Labour has delivered. But I'm unimpressed by Ruth Kelly, and I think they're getting it wrong at the moment. This whole business about parent power is just giving people what they want to hear. I would have thought that over the last decade we would have come to realise that more so-called choice for parents only ends up as more choice for schools."

Such views are also reflected in a recent analysis of Labour's educational record by the Centre for Economic Performance, at the London School of Economics, which concluded that while standards have risen under this Government, there is doubt over whether this has been achieved in a cost-effective way, or whether increased school choice - enthusiastically backed by both Labour and Tories - will raise standards.

The swing away from Labour partly reflects teachers' disenchantment with the party's educational record, but also anger over the war on Iraq, and distrust of a Government that they believe has lied to them and run roughshod over constitutional processes. In fact, despite their rowdy Easter union conferences, and intermittent threats of industrial action, teachers have always been a politically conservative bunch. However, many were seduced by Labour's "education, education, education" manifesto of 1997 and swung behind Blair. They stayed loyal in 2001, but this time those loyalties appear to be snapping.

A total of 569 teachers and others replied to an election survey posted on the website. They broke down evenly into those working in primaries, and those working in secondary schools. Of the respondents, 259 voted Labour last time, but only 143 plan to do so now, while Liberal Democrat support has risen from 156 to 212. Seventy-two per cent think Ruth Kelly isn't an effective Education Secretary, or have no opinion about her. Seventy-three per cent object to the new proposal to allow parents to trigger school inspections, and 81 per cent believe the Government hasn't done enough to improve the quality of school meals.

In conversations, several were scathing about how the Government had tried to climb on the Jamie Oliver bandwagon without doing anything substantial about it. Teachers are also against an expansion in the number of faith schools - a policy beloved of church-going Blair - although here opinions are more divided, with 229 respondents wanting fewer faith schools, and 139 wanting more.

Overall, 64 per cent think Labour hasn't delivered on education - although among those who voted Labour at the last election the figure dropped to 47 per cent.

"I voted Liberal Democrat last time and I'll probably do the same again this year," says Sarah Hack, a geography teacher at Bishop Stopford's School in north London, whose main concerns are discipline and resources. "I have no support in my lessons any more and I'm teaching key stage 3 to children who are at level five or six, or at level three, all in one class. In a school of about 1,000, we've only got four learning support assistants and three mentors."

"Labour used to talk about 'education, education, education' but now you don't hear anything. It's as if they think it's all been done," says Janet Collins, head of ICT, at the Astley Cooper School in Hemel Hempstead. "But then you listen to all the parties, and what they say they are going to do, and you wonder what it all adds up to anyway."

If teachers are disheartened by Labour's educational performance, there is little sign of them swinging to the Tories. While almost of all of them - 82 per cent - want to see a review of the national curriculum, as advocated by all three main parties, only 35 think Chris Woodhead, the much-loathed former chief inspector, should be put in charge of it, as the Tories would do. Another Conservative idea, the "pupil passport", enabling families to buy a place at the school of their choice, also gets a thumbs down, with 64 per cent against it. As does the desire to free schools from local authority control, which only gets the approval of 44 per cent (19 per cent among those who voted Labour at the last election).

The Liberal Democrats are clearly seen as the party which would spend most on education if they came to power - 277 votes against Labour's 159, with the Conservatives trailing miserably at 69.

The Lib Dems also get support for their proposal on university top-up fees, with 66 per cent agreeing they want them abolished. For some teachers, this is a question of personal interest - they anticipate having to struggle to fund their own children through university. (In fact, this doesn't have to be the case. The point of top-up fees is that parents don't have to pay.) Others worry that higher fees will put pupils from poorer homes off higher education. The Lib Dems also score with teachers on their proposal to cut primary classes to 25 or fewer pupils, with 76 per cent supporting this.

But teachers' overwhelming concern is about classroom discipline, with 85 per cent saying it is harder to maintain classroom order than 10 years ago. "I have been called a bastard, tit, twat, tosser, fucking bastard and fat bastard," wrote one, furiously. "And that's in the last three days." Seventy-two per cent also want to see children with special needs taught in separate schools.

It is in this area that many teachers say Labour has failed to deliver, pointing out that many hours of teaching are lost through disruptive behaviour. They also feel there are too many initiatives, without the money to back them - the Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time initiative, intended to give teachers time off for preparation, is a particular source of anxiety - and while they welcome money spent on computers and other classroom technologies, some feel this investment has been at the expense of other subjects. They are disappointed that the Government has not adopted the Tomlinson Report, which would have united vocational and academic education into a new deal for 14- to 19-year-olds. Several say it has been a lost opportunity for radical reform.

But there is some praise for the way Labour has raised standards, decreased class sizes and increased salaries. "I am very disappointed with this Labour Government over the Iraq war but will still vote Labour as I feel that, as a teacher, salaries have increased dramatically and class sizes in my school are very small. I supported a maths class on Monday with only three special-needs pupils and two qualified teachers. This is in a mainstream secondary school. Our school has excellent facilities and we seem to have as much money as we want to buy resources," wrote one.

However, others pleaded for smaller class sizes, better resources, and more in-class support - although, interestingly, there was little clamour for better pay or conditions for teachers.

While their desire to see improved ways of removing disruptive children from class, with more pupil referral units and withdrawal facilities, is in line with the Tory hard line on exclusions, many made it clear that they believe problems with discipline and bad behaviour are deep social difficulties beyond the reach of politics. They write feelingly of the need for parents to start to impose discipline at home, and to support teachers when they try to enforce it in school.

Talk back: teachers' messages for the politicians

"Further education is starved of funding. Almost no politicians have it on their radar screens. Yet without further education the average student wouldn't get a job or a place at university today."

"I am an advisory teacher for special education and must promote inclusion, but you cannot just put children into a mainstream school and give schools a bit of extra money. I see these children in schools every day. Very few of them are learning or even coping, and the same can be said of the schools. We are failing these children."

"We have pupils constantly out of lessons, constantly swearing at staff and constantly causing damage, yet we are told we cannot exclude. The health and safety of teachers is being allowed to deteriorate because of this Government's policies."

"We are doing PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time by employing a new teacher at a great cost. This has been funded by the Government to the tune of just a few thousand pounds. How does this add up?"

"The state of school meals is atrocious. It is no wonder that pupils' behaviour is getting worse. One of my pupils, who has behavioural difficulties, can swing from being calm and sensible, to aggressive and challenging in a matter of seconds. He has vouchers to enable him to get a school dinner. However, there appears to be no control over what he buys with them. I discovered his usual lunch consisted of a can of Coke and a can of Dr Pepper."

"At my school, parents are routinely contacted when their children misbehave. Often they condone or deny their children's poor behaviour. Parents have been educated in their rights by successive governments - the time has come for the mums and dads to take some responsibility."

"Under Labour, classroom assistants came back. Our school was given a hall at last so we could have indoor PE and whole school assemblies. A lot was spent on school buildings and the implementation of ICT. However, the impression is still that all initiatives come from above without apparent consultation with the profession."

"My teaching work doesn't leave me any time to fill out questionnaires. Sorry."