On Thursday 22nd March the Labour Party launched their National Campaign for the Local Elections in Trafford. There are not many venues in Trafford that can accommodate about 800 people and so this is why the Sports Hall at Stretford High School was chosen as the venue for this prestigious event. The campaign launch seemed to go very smoothly in the morning and the main event for the cameras was all over by about 11.30am.
Meanwhile, over in the main body of the school, we were getting ready for a very special event. The email from Jeremy Corbyn’s office a week before had been very clear. He wanted to do a question and answer session with a group of about 25 to 30 students between 1.30 and 2pm. Our students in year 9 study politics at Stretford High School. They had recently completed their politics Learning Logs and many in the year group had been on the annual trip to the Houses of Parliament in London (hosted by our very own Kate Green MP). Therefore, we decided that the group should consist mostly of Year 9 students but we also included some Year 8 students from an English class who had been studying journalistic writing techniques.
About an hour before Jeremy Corbyn was due to appear the room that we had selected (my room!) was ready. His office had asked for all the desks to be removed and for our students to be sat on chairs in a circle (which is the best format for a Q and A session). Once we had done this we were visited by Jeremy Corbyn’s PR team and it was fascinating watching them in action, choosing where he should sit in the room (they were looking at the posters on my wall trying to spot what might be seen as controversial in photographs. For instance, they didn’t want to put him in front of my Manchester United display because he is an Arsenal fan!). Once a suitable spot was selected (for the record, it was directly under the Tony Walsh poem about Manchester which had been painted into a heart!) a cushion was placed as a marker on the chair so that it could be left empty for when he arrived.
At 1.25pm all of the students who had been selected arrived. I’ve worked at Stretford High School since 2005 and we have had loads of amazing guests in that time (Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Wilf McGuinness, Paddy Crerand, Patrick Viera, Lemn Sissay, Ian McShane, Ian McMillan, Caroline Lawrence, Dickie Bird…the list goes on and on) but I have never seen so many students as excited as this. For some reason Jeremy Corbyn speaks to young people and they listen. All morning I had been hearing the odd outbreak of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” on the corridors. Now that he was actually about to make his entrance you could tell that students were nervous. They had been told about a week beforehand that he was coming in (we wrote to the relevant parents because they needed to give their permission for photographs to be taken). In that time I had been encouraging them to watch the news and to compose at least a couple of killer questions. After all, how often in life do you get to actually do something like this?
I was outside my room waiting to greet him when what looked like a rugby scrum appeared at the bottom of the corridor. The corridor lit up with flash bulbs exploding everywhere. Photographers walking backwards managed to completely push me out of the doorway and I had to squeeze down the side of them in order to welcome him to the class. This was my moment to say something and what did I choose to speak about? The recent transfer of Alexi Sanchez from Arsenal to Manchester United! I’m rubbish at seizing my moment!
Once inside the class he was wonderful with our students and they were hanging on every word that he said. The first question was regarding student fees (followed up quickly with one on apprenticeships). Jeremy Corbyn confirmed that he would abolish University fees (to huge cheers from the room!) and that he would expand the apprenticeship programme. He confirmed that he intended to pay for this by increasing the rate of tax for the top earners in society.
The next question he faced was regarding politicians not keeping promises (an excellent question). Our students asked that if he were to come to power what would their lives look like in ten years time? Mr Corbyn said that politicians do actually change lives all the time and he used the example of the Labour Partly setting up the NHS as an example. It was interesting that in his answer he focused very much on how a Labour government under him would prioritise the environment. He mentioned legislation regarding single use plastics as an example.
These opening questions were followed up with one about how he responded to all the negative press he received (he said it didn’t bother him but he was upset when it was about his family. He mentioned that his wife was Mexican and that the British press had flown out to Mexico in order to door step his in laws to get a story). The next question was about how staff in the NHS and schools were being overworked and under staffed. He agreed and said that staffing in the Public sector was a priority he intended to address straight away if he were to become Prime Minister. A follow up question mentioned the “Northern Powerhouse” and what Labour would do about that. Mr Corbyn admitted that the government had gone very quiet on the “Northern Powerhouse” since the election. He said that he would be increasing investment all around the country, not just the North, in order to stimulate growth and get Britain manufacturing and innovating products.
A Brexit question came next and he answered this as well as anyone can at the moment. He mentioned links within European education and how he wanted to keep the ERASMUS exchange programme as an option for British University students. Finally, he left us with a thought…”Whatever you get from education, give back double!”
With that he got a rousing round of applause before posing for a number of photographs with the group. He signed a few photographs and then the person with the hardest job in politics (that is his PR person, a lady whose name I didn’t catch but she had black hair and a red jacket. It is her job to get Jeremy Corbyn to stick to his schedule!) practically bundled him out of the room and off to his next engagement. We all, teachers and students, just stood there looking at each other for a moment before collectively saying, “Did that just actually happen?” It was such a privilege to spend 30 minutes in the company of Jeremy Corbyn and I’m very proud that our students asked such amazing questions and that they had made the most of the experience that had been given to them.