With Stephen Twigg emerging as one of the casualties of Ed Miliband’s reshuffle there is a new man tasked with challenging the government on education policy. Tristram Hunt has taken over Labour’s education brief with less than two years to go until the next election. His job over the next few months will be to provide credible opposition to Michael Gove and to re-establish Labour’s voice on education – something that is desperately needed given that Labour has struggled to find a clear voice on education since it left office in 2010. This will be a job filled with both opportunities and challenges.
In terms of opportunities, Hunt will be up against a man who is staggeringly unpopular amongst the teaching profession and significant sections of the public. In fact, Gove seems to view his unpopularity amongst what he ominously calls the ‘education establishment’ as a badge of honour. The frothing anger of the teaching unions and leading academics just serves as positive reinforcement. There is, therefore, scope for Hunt to gain strong support simply by providing a less antagonistic narrative of what our education system needs. Moreover, if the last three years have shown anything they have shown that Gove’s ability to intelligently implement his reforms does not match his ability to hold forth on the ills of the education system. Lack of consultation, constant backtracking and an incredibly poor sense of timing have all plagued his reforms so far. Again this provides an opportunity for Hunt to score points. In fact, this is one area in which his predecessor was pretty effective, with Twigg regularly criticising Gove for making policy ‘on the hoof’.
So what are the challenges? First, there is the rather complex legacy of the last Labour government’s education reforms. As I have noted before, in many ways Labour laid the groundwork for the reforms around school choice and diversity that are now being massively accelerated by the introduction of converter academies and free schools. This, combined with the fact that many within the Labour party have always been opposed to increasing school choice and autonomy, makes it difficult for Labour to criticise aspects of the new academy programme without either disowning the party’s legacy or alienating some of its members. Second, much of the debate around education is been conducted in terms that Labour is not particularly comfortable with. All this talk of standards and academic rigour sounds too traditional and exclusive for many in the party. This makes side-stepping these debates entirely quite tempting and that has certainly been Labour’s approach so far, with Twigg having tried to portray Gove as reforming education for some but not for all by drawing attention to ‘the forgotten fifty-percent’ who would benefit from better quality vocational education. The problem with this is that it makes it very easy for Gove to portray Labour as uninterested in standards and rigour. Finally, the nature of the opponent also presents a significant challenge. Simplistic and unoriginal though it may be, Gove has a very clear narrative about what is wrong with the education system and what needs to change. Moreover, this narrative places him squarely at odds with many of those involved in education. So for Hunt to be heard he will not only have to challenge a strong narrative, he will also have to compete for attention with a whole host of other influential people queuing up to attack Gove.
Turning to the more interesting question of what Hunt should do, I would offer the following advice.
1. Establish a clear position on academies and free schools
The academisation of schools is arguably the biggest thing happening in education at the moment. Labour quickly needs to work out where it now stands on the questions of autonomy and diversity. Nick Pearse accurately describes Twigg’s position on free schools as ‘tortured and unconvincing’ and his approach to academy freedoms was little better. Rather than cave-in to those in his party who want to see the academy programme ended, Hunt should offer support for academies but strongly argue for greater accountability, fairer admissions and re-establishing the importance of community support; in other words, putting a social purpose back at the heart of the academies programme.
2. Engage with the debate about standards head-on
One of the first things Hunt should do is acknowledge that improved exam scores over the last twenty years have not necessarily meant an increase in educational standards. It is only by doing this that he can start to shape the debate on what should be done about it. A continuation of the policy of denial – by pointing to increases in GCSE results under Labour as evidence of higher standards – will simply cede the entire debate about how to improve standards to Gove. Labour desperately needs a voice in that debate. (Early signs on this are not encouraging)
3. Reclaim territory on social mobility
The coalition government has, at least rhetorically, put social mobility at the heart of its education agenda. Hunt should do the same by offering suggestions to address acknowledged problems such as the attainment gap and access to selective universities but also by pointing out where the current system hinders the social mobility agenda (e.g. school admissions). Importantly, he needs to take a positive approach to policy in this area. It is not enough, for example, to identify where a government reform makes access to university more difficult for disadvantaged students (as Labour did on the reforms to AS-levels) – he needs to articulate exactly what a Labour government would do to address the underlying issue.
4. Choose your friends carefully
As noted above, in opposing some of Gove’s reforms Hunt will find himself with plenty of company. This can be an advantage but it is also potentially dangerous. He should be careful about assuming that his enemy’s enemy is his friend. Whilst he should seek consensus more than Gove has tried to do he should also be confident about challenging those elements in the education sector that are hostile to genuine reform. If he tries too hard to please the teaching unions, for example, he will find it difficult to get a proper grip on the debate on standards.