Five key workers on how Labour can fix Britain, from the NHS to prisons

Keir Starmer opened his first cabinet meeting on Saturday with the words: “We have a huge amount of work to do.” From the NHS to schools and prisons, the public sector is battling chronic underfunding, staff shortages and record demand for its services. The Observer asked five key workers what Labour’s priorities should be in the months and years ahead.

Jonathan Clucas (above), headteacher at Layton primary school in Blackpool
I came to school on Friday morning feeling more hopeful than I’ve felt for a long time. I’ve been a headteacher for 19 years and this is the hardest it’s ever been. Teaching is a brilliant job, full of wonder, but all our successes have been despite the last government not because of them. I feel optimistic Labour will champion education again.

The 6,500 new teachers they have promised are great, yet the new education secretary needs to understand why people aren’t choosing teaching or are leaving. Manifestos deal in magic bullets, but in education they don’t really exist. There are no instant fixes. I’ve got rolling job ads because we can’t find staff and it’s the same everywhere.

It is a scandal that more than four million children have been pushed into poverty. We now have to step in and help families on a daily basis. Many are in crisis and children have suffered trauma. More than 60 of our children are young carers and they still come in and learn every day.

If you want to improve outcomes when children are 16 years old, spend money on them when they are two. When I had a children’s centre at my last school it was a superb resource. If the new government invests in early support, that would be brilliant.

I hope this new government will have the courage to implement some bold changes to the curriculum, including celebrating the creative arts. Curriculum reform has only been about cramming extra content in, which we don’t have time to teach. I hope there will be more desire to listen to what we now know about how children learn. The Tories wanted to prepare children for a world that stopped existing 50 years ago.

Ofsted needs to be fixed. A report card instead of single-word judgments is a good start, but I want an inspectorate that is properly independent. It became a political device for the Department for Education. Labour must consider what Ofsted should be measuring us on and it can’t only be about exam results. Why aren’t they measuring schools on how inclusive they are? Why aren’t they looking at the training and development teachers receive, so they are great in the classroom and more likely to stay?

Most of all, I hope Labour will have more than just a strategic plan for education. I hope they will have a dream.

Michael Dobson, nurse in an accident and emergency department in a hospital in north-west England

A&E nurse Michael Dobson.
A&E nurse Michael Dobson.

I’m hoping the new government does grasp the scale of the problem because I think most politicians have no idea what’s going on in hospitals. They get a sanitised view, they see fully staffed shifts, plenty of ward managers, matrons, when in fact things are breaking down. There’s a lack of dignity of care, massive burnout and poor retention rates. Staff breaking down into tears during shifts because they can’t provide the care they want.

I’ve had mental health patients waiting in our department more than four days for a bed. Recently, we had 28 patients waiting in our corridor and one of the paramedics came in and told me they had 21 ambulances queued up outside. I’ve seen 15 myself. And while patients are in the back of the ambulances, they’re not receiving treatment. So I want the governnment to grasp the scale of the problem and deal with it.

It’s about providing systemic support. A lot of patients in hospitals are medically fit but they have nowhere to go, because the care isn’t there to make it safe for them to go back home. The social care system needs support.

Another thing they need to do is fix retention. A lot of student nurses have to do unpaid placements for 37-and-a-half hours a week. As a student nurse, you’re basically paying to work for free. The Tories cut the bursary from £10,000 to £5,000. So a lot of these student nurses get burnt out before they’ve even qualified. It’s three years of work, unpaid. And mature students might be looking after their family as well. So they’re doing unpaid work for training, then working on top of that to make a living, and looking after their family. Reintroducing the full bursary would help with that.

Anonymous, a sergeant in the East Midlands who has served as a police officer for 22 years
Policing is now very difficult. Demand is very high all the time, there’s no respite. When I joined, you could go and be proactive against crime. Now, officers are going from job to job to job and just trying to keep their heads above water.

We’re struggling to deal with 999 and 101 calls, and, because of that, we’re struggling to provide neighbourhood policing. There needs to be a wholesale overhaul to understand exactly what people want.

We’re here to protect the public and to prevent and detect crime, but a lot of our time is taken up with medical and mental health issues. We lost 20,000 police officers [between 2010 and 2019] and we might have got that number back, but I see people resigning on a weekly basis because they don’t feel that they’re doing the job they signed up for. We’re losing young officers who joined the police to go looking for criminality, but they’re not able to do that.

We need to have the right agency dealing with the right incident and to invest in organisations such as mental health and ambulance services. That would release us to do what we should be doing.

Because of mobile phones and technology, it is more complicated to get people charged. We’re spending a lot more time on the paperwork. The Crown Prosecution Service is understaffed and overworked, and we’re waiting a long time for decisions, which affects public confidence in the police. They don’t think we’re dealing with people quickly, but it’s sometimes out of our hands.

Anonymous, a prison officer who has served for four years and now works in a women’s prison
We are massively understaffed. On paper, my prison is fully staffed, but in reality we have so many staff on secondments, acting up in other roles or on restricted duties, that we are running at minimum numbers and curtailing the regime, keeping prisoners locked up for most of the day.

I feel that prisoners’ mental health is deteriorating, with more time spent behind a locked door. They are unable to be with people or to build positive relationships with peers and staff. Staff struggle seeing some of the self-harm and suicide attempts that occur daily.

We want a better recruitment policy to improve the standards of staff coming into the service, and there need to be harsher sentences for corrupt staff. The new government needs to go back to face-to-face recruitment, not doing it online – you can’t get the feel of anyone remotely.

Newer staff can struggle with lack of support from experienced staff. I have many officers less than one year in who are teaching new officers how to do the job.

We want investment in the service, and we want the government to listen to the independent pay-review body it set up and pay us a fair wage.

Sam Thornton, a support worker for people with learning disabilities in Gloucestershire

Sam Thornton, a support worker for people with learning disabilities.

I’ve been doing this for 33 years now. When I started in 1990, I worked in the NHS and the new innovation at the time was supported living – moving people from hospitals and institutions into their own homes in the community. We set up a bungalow for five service-users and it was a big change for them.
When I started, I was on £6.50 an hour. I had no real responsibility. I was doing personal-care activities, cooking, general housework. We had qualified members of staff for the other things.

Unfortunately, the NHS decided we weren’t financially viable any more and we were taken over by the private sector. We started to get trained on different things – peg feeding, bowel-care management, medication training.

It started to snowball. They moved the qualified staff out of homes and put all the responsibility on to the support staff. Now I’m on £12.30 an hour. I’ve had a £6 pay rise in 33 years [£6.50 in 1990 would be worth £19.50 today]. I could work in Aldi for £12.50 with no responsibility whatsoever, but I love my job. It’s a vocation for me.

Sometimes I think it’s not bad money but then I look back and think: no, it’s awful. We’re doing the job of a Band 4 worker in the NHS (who earns between £25,000 and £27.500 a year). In the NHS, I wouldn’t be able to go into hospital and give someone a paracetamol, yet it’s deemed OK for me to give life-saving medication on a daily basis.

My top asks would be a national care service. We need to get a fair pay agreement, so let’s start the ball rolling on that. Let’s make this career – and I do call it a career – appealing to the younger generation. Mentally and physically, it’s a hard job to do. I want them to think, “no, I don’t have to go to uni – I can make a really good career out of this.”

I want the national care service to be as good as the NHS. I don’t want us to be the poor relation. I want us to be recognised as the really skilled workforce we actually are. I woke up this morning feeling hopeful that things will change.

The Guardian

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