EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Teachers’ union leader urges Labour to go further to tackle child poverty

Labour must commit to lifting the two-child benefit cap, says NEU General Secretary

Daniel Kebede

There is room for Labour “to do better” when it comes to funding pledges and tackling child poverty, the leader of the National Education Union (NEU) has said as he highlighted the crises in education the next government must take on.

Daniel Kebede, NEU General Secretary, told LFF that the omission of removing the two-child benefit cap in Labour’s manifestos was “disappointing”, as the devastating effects of child poverty are acutely felt in the education sector. 

The next government must do three things for education, Kebede said, address the funding crisis, tackle the recruitment and retention issue and take on child poverty. 

Keir Starmer is facing increased pressure, as he moves closer to potentially becoming Prime Minister, to abolish the two-child benefit cap which was brought in by the Conservatives in 2017. On Monday, the Labour leader said he was “not immune” to the powerful argument for scrapping the cap, after new data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the policy will affect one in five children once rolled out fully. 

The teachers’ union has called on Labour to scrap the policy, as well as urging for a national roll out of universal free school meals, as Kebede highlighted that child poverty was currently the top concern among teachers. 

“Those two policies are very inexpensive, £3bn annually combined,” said Kebede. “You’ve got to bear in mind child poverty costs the Treasury £38bn, it’s incredibly wasteful.”

He continued: “We lose architects, doctors, it leads to an entire wastage of human creativity and fundamentally the economy doesn’t grow because of it, so there needs to be robust action.”

Kebede, elected as leader of the NEU last year, was a teacher in the North-East throughout the Tory austerity years.

Reflecting on his experience he said: “Whether you’re a child of Colombian migrants whose parents are working cleaning hotel rooms or you’re a white working class kid in Wallsend on Tyne, the struggles are joined. It’s access to quality housing, to the resources you need to learn, to food, the basics to thrive really.”

He noted: “We hear regularly from members that they are bringing in food, bringing in resources for children.”

Currently, 30% of UK children are in poverty, that’s 4.3 million children, while more than 1 million children experienced destitution in 2022. 

The General Secretary welcomed Labour’s recognition of the problems faced in the sector, along with the promise of a curriculum and assessment review, however he noted that spending promises “really only scratch the surface”.

“Any incoming government needs to recognise the crisis in school funding. Spending used to be in excess of 5% of GDP under the last Labour government, now it’s 3.9%,” said Kebede. 

The union’s School Cuts Campaign has calculated that £12.2 billion is needed to start reversing the impact of Government cuts.

“We need a government that recognises education is an investment, and that children should be considered a capital spend, and the only way to secure the economic growth that everybody wants to see is to ensure we have an educated population,” said Kebede. 

Restoring the relationship between the government and teaching profession will also be a crucial first step for the party in power, the union leader said, and the shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson’s commitment to this has been welcomed. 

Also welcomed is Labour’s promise of 6,500 more teachers, however Kebede pointed out it was in the context of a 33,000 teacher shortage. 

The alternative prospect of another Conservative Government would be devastating, Kebede stressed, and result in the “most catastrophic cuts to education for generations” and hundreds of school closures.

Reflecting on party pledges for young people more widely, Kebede said one of his favourite manifesto pledges actually came from the Liberal Democrats. 

The Lib Dems have proposed to tax social media companies and use the money to spend on mental health provision for young people, as Kebede noted that the UK has the second unhappiest 16-year-olds in the OECD.

“I have a real concern about the level of unhappiness and mental health crisis for young people, it’s severe and there’s not the necessary provision to help them,” Kebede said. 

Although cautiously optimistic about the prospect of working with a new government, particularly around Ofsted and curriculum and assessment reform, Kebede said the union will continue to work on behalf of its members and children “until we see a change in the direction of travel” around funding and on child poverty.

(Image credit: Sky News / YouTube screenshot)

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward

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