Tristram Hunt’s challenge
I have a general rule of thumb when watching education ministers and their shadows perform in public. Remember the audiences, because there are two. The first, is comprised of parents, pupils, heads and teachers. In spite of the best efforts of politicians to divide them, this group generally has a common interest in ensuring their local schools are as good as possible.
The second group is the political, mostly metropolitan, chattering classes, policy nerds and the media. Their agenda is different; they like to scent out ideological inconsistency, prey on personality clashes, and in the case of the media are disproportionately interested in anything that relates to personal choice, the state private divide and free schools, which make up a miniscule part of England’s 24,000 school estate but command almost hysterical interest. Their potential to be “private schools on the rates” is too good to ignore.
Yesterday it was the new Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt’s task to walk the tightrope. And he almost pulled it off. His partial endorsement of the Gove free schools (only in areas of need) probably satisfied the second audience, even if it was just a repeat of policy laid out by Stephen Twigg in the summer.
It was disappointing to see those tired old images of the valiant “social entrepreneur” battling it out against the monolithic local authority being wheeled out. As a top notch historian Hunt must know that local authorities haven’t “run” schools since 1988 when the Thatcher government introduced local management. Moreover everyone from Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw downwards agrees that local authorities have a vital role to play when it comes to holding schools to account and the adequate provision of places.
But the Twigg/ Hunt position of all schools having the same freedoms and responsibilities, especially in areas like curriculum, admissions and funding, and being so tightly held to account that school “type” becomes irrelevant, is a neat way of dealing with the fragmented landscape a Labour government might inherit.
The problem for Tristram Hunt and the rest of the Labour party is that they have nothing more to say about education. Barely 18 months from the General Election we know no more about what the school curriculum would look like under Labour, how it would re-moralise the profession, deal with the hash that Gove has made of qualifications reform, address the looming crises in teacher supply and capital investment, not to mention one or two other big elephants in the room like selection and the charitable status of fee charging schools.
But there has never been a better moment for a big alternative argument. The leaking this weekend of Gove advisor Dominic Cummings’ extraordinary tract has divided opinion in some quarters. Is he just a lone maverick? Or was his 250 page manifesto for schools really a detailed amplification of his master’s voice?
I would say it was the latter rather than the former. The Tory party has a deep abiding belief in selection or “genetics’, as Cummings put it. Michael Gove admitted shortly after coming into office that his foot was “hovering over the pedal” when it came to the reintroduction of the 11 plus. The Secretary of State has also made no secret of his view that the introduction of for profit school providers would give the market a big fillip.
Top up vouchers in a market where state schools, whether academy or maintained, open and close like corner shops is never far from the surface in the Gove ideology. One of the dangers in the current rapid academisation is that schools that leave the maintained sector can never come back, paving the way for alternative, and less, scrupulous providers to take over in the future.
All the polling suggests that parents are instinctively suspicious of any further commercialisation of schools so the door is wide open for Labour to come in with a commitment to an excellent public education system which focuses on good teaching and leadership, a broad curriculum, high quality vocational and academic qualifications and draws in the professionals as co-reformers, not adversaries.
It would be absurd to expect a new Shadow Secretary of State to deal with all this in his first week. But time is running out. Ticking the free school box on the first day may be an unpalatable necessity but every day that passes with Labour dancing around on the Gove territory runs the risk of the party position being seen as Gove-lite, rather than clear, distinctive and principled. There is an appetite out here for something different and the challenge for Hunt now is to produce it.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian