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Who has the ear of Tristram Hunt?

beethovens_trumpet_with_ear_by_john_baldessari_saatchi_gallery__londonIn his speech to Labour Party conference,  Tristram Hunt outlined a minimal education policy. None of the great questions raised by Michael Gove’s reign over education were addressed. He had an excellent opportunity to fill the post-Gove void and persuade academics, teachers, teaching assistants, trade unionists, parents and everyone concerned for education not only to vote Labour but also to persuade others to do the same. The 10 minute speech received lukewarm applause in contrast to the warm reception given to other Shadow Cabinet speakers. As John Crace wrote in the Guardian:

The shadow education secretary’s most obvious ambition was to get out of the hall as fast as possible and no one was minded to thwart it.”

Tristram Hunt said ‘only a Labour government will ensure our schools are not privatised for profit’. This does not mean they will not be privatised i.e. removed from any degree of Local authority oversight and given to unelected Directors of School Standards and private academy chains. Besides, as Martin Johnson and Warwick Mansell have shown, a great deal of covert privatisation of education has gone on already and continues apace.

In her address to conference, Angela Eagle, Chair of the National Policy Forum, warmly commended the thoroughly democratic process of policy making, represented by the Policy Commissions, culminating in the three days of discussion and debate in Milton Keynes. She was confident that the final results of the Forum reflected the views of  Party members and affiliated organisations. I attended the NPF and I share that confidence.

Ed Miliband told Conference that a Labour government would “devolve power to local government, bringing power closer to people right across England”. In the fringe meetings Tristram Hunt delivered a few comments about ‘world class teachers’ and ‘the forgotten 50%’ only to go on to reject any suggestion that Local authorities should have an enhanced role in managing, commissioning and overseeing schools, despite the NPF’s agreement that “Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their areas ….. Labour believes in strong local oversight of schools’ and ‘Local Authorities have a key part to play in delivering high quality education …’. No mention of any of this from Tristram Hunt.

When asked about how Labour would resolve the problems caused by top-slicing of the education services grant to support academies leaving Local authorities with insufficient funds to provide services to vulnerable children in great need Tristram Hunt did not seem to understand the question and protested loudly that he would hear no criticism of sponsored academies.

Tristram Hunt seemed most at home at a small fringe meeting run by the Policy Exchange think tank, the title of which was “Parent-led academies, Directors of School Standards and collaboration for all. What should Labour promise on schools in 2015?” The speakers were Tristram, John Blake of ‘Labour Teachers’ (not affiliated to the Labour Party), Chris Keates, General Secretary NASUWT, Laura McInerney from ‘Academies Week’ and Jonathan Simons, Head of Education, Policy Exchange (David Cameron’s favourite think tank).

Jonathan Simons argued for the academisation of all primary schools and John Blake concurred claiming that two schools in his area had benefited from such a change. Tristram Hunt rehearsed his familiar lines about ‘world class teachers’. He spoke of the success of the ‘London Challenge’ and how Labour will roll out similar schemes across the country. He went on to declare Labour’s support for ‘Parent-led Academies’: ‘free schools’ in all but name. When asked what the difference was between the two he didn’t seem to know. He also showed no concern when he was asked  if this would enable middle class parents with sharp elbows to use public money for their own children.

The Parent-led academies proposal did not appear in the NPF document. It is opposed by all the major teaching unions, as well as respected educational academics. The meeting was predicated on the assumption that the audience were ignorant of the facts. The success of the London Challenge did not depend on academies but on Local Authority maintained schools working together, as the Ofsted report on the London Challenge states, ‘30% of London’s 377 Local Authority-controlled  secondary schools were judged to be outstanding, reflecting the positive impact of the London Challenge. Of the 34 academies in London that have been inspected 8 (or 24%) were outstanding’.

Furthermore, Henry Stewart’s research on ‘The Academies Illusionfor the Local Schools Network states:

For those schools whose GCSE benchmark was in the 20-40% range in 2011, academies increased by 7.8% and maintained schools by 7.7%. Both are great improvements and the schools deserve to be congratulated. However it makes little difference whether the school was an academy or not.”

This is despite the billions that have been spent on academies, much of it misspent as shown by the recent report by the House of Commons Education Select Committee Report. Stewart shows clearly that academies are not transformative:

The data does not back up this view. Students in sponsored academies are less likely to take the humanities and language GCSEs that Michael Gove was so keen to promote. Many are doing well and have seen significant growth in GCSE results. However, this increase is just as large in similar non-academies where it is less likely to be based on ‘GCSE equivalents’.

The suggestion that the wholesale academisation of the Primary Sector is also necessary is therefore also groundless. Overall there are more ‘good’ or better primary schools (78%) than secondary schools (71%).

Does the appearance on the same platform as Jonathan Simons and John Blake signal a new policy initiative? Tristram Hunt’s utterances were certainly not based on the facts or on Labour Party policy. Is this a new ‘go it alone, with a little help from my friends’ approach from Tristram Hunt? The Labour movement expects and deserves more from a shadow Secretary of State. It is entitled to ask – “Who has the ear of Tristram Hunt?”

Sheila Doré is Chair of the Socialist Educational Association

Image Credit: John Baldessari and the Saatchi Gallery


  1. David Pavett says:

    A very helpful analysis. It raises some serious questions about Labour education policy. Is it determined by the National Policy Forum or does Tristram Hunt make it up when speaking to right-wing think tanks? Does Labour intend to reinvolve local authorities in the process of education or not? When will Labour drop the pretence that its “parent-led academies” are anything other than free schools? Could Labour’s proposed Directors of School Services be used to distance schools which have declined the pressure to academise from their local authorities?

  2. James Martin says:

    Good article. Hunt is showing himself in many ways worse than Twigg, as Twigg was just useless whereas Hunt is dangerous (in a nasty Progress tendency kind of way).

    And how ironic that sacked Gove’s replacement, Nicky Morgan, has done more in the past few weeks to try and reach out and reconnect with the teaching profession (not that she should be trusted of course) than Hunt the picket-line crossing posh scab with his ingrained middle-class hostility to unions ever has.

  3. Gordon Gibson says:

    Does the Labour Party have the ear of TH?

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