Tristram Hunt – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Today, Tristram Hunt’s latest attempt to secure half a million teacher votes already alienated by Gove came in the form of the linked Guardian article. On the face of it, an attempt to perhaps repair the damage of his ludicrous “Teacher Oath” idea which became the most roundly ridiculed concept the educational world had seen since Gove’s personal draft of the History national curriculum. However, as always, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

The Good

Fair do’s, Tristram, in recognising that workload has risen fast to the top of the profession’s concerns. Whatever devils are actually found in the detail, the fact that a politician is recognising just how out of control teacher workload has become is a big positive. The last few years have tended to see politicians doing rather more reinforcement of the idea that “good” teachers must necessarily live in the school stationary cupboard, and anyone daring to try and work their contracted hours and have a life outside school is letting the side down. No names mentioned, but one enormous cretinous oaf in particular actually went on record as saying that teachers didn’t know what stress was, and that teachers who “only” worked the hours they were paid for, were unworthy of any credit, no matter how effective they were in those hours. So well done Mr Hunt, for publicly recognising that teaching is a job in which long hours are not A Good Thing ™, and hanging round the school buildings for hours after all the kids have gone home is not necessarily a sign of a good teacher, so much as a sign of an unsustainable and damaging culture of overwork.

Recognising that “initiative-itis” is a problem is also a step in the right direction. Any SofS who says “How about you just get on with teaching now?” would be a welcome breath of fresh air. However, you’ll pardon me if I withhold any public cheering on the grounds that this is the educational equivalent of the traditional pre-election promise to devolve power from Westminster : every party claims they favour it in opposition, but none deliver it when their sweaty hands grip the levers of power.

Stopping Gove’s anachronistic A-Level “Back to the Future” reforms would also be welcomed by many teachers, including me. So stick to your guns on that. Good man.

Finally, and most interestingly for me, Hunt breaks the Omerta regarding school “leaders” when he says “It is poor headteachers, lacking in confidence, who create excessive paperwork”. This is undoubtedly partly true, as such sources as LearningSpy has highlighted recently, and last week’s Ofsted announcement about marking was clearly inspired by accounts which have reached fever pitch all over the country of scared SLTs demanding mad amounts of marking from already overloaded staff, on the grounds that it’s WOW (What Ofsted Want). However, in defence of SLT colleagues, it’s incredibly hard to defend their staff from excessive workload in a system overseen by this current Ofsted incarnation.

However, what I’m most interested in is that after five years of having “leaders” lionized in every politician’s announcement, while teachers are relegated to simple cannon-fodder whose sole role is to do whatever “leaders” tell them to do, we now have a statement which accepts that in too many cases, teachers are being held back or damaged by poor leaders more concerned with covering their own arses for imaginary Ofsted pressures, than exercising their duty to protect their students by acting as a shit umbrella for their staff  (usual proviso that this doesn’t apply to my school). This is really positive, because until we drop the “Cult of the Leader” guff and recognise that no school functions without valued professionals in the classrooms, then we’re unlikely to get very far.

The Bad

While I accept Hunt’s view that fewer initiatives would be welcome, his argument is a very strange one at heart. Essentially, he says, Gove has vandalised the education system. No argument from me there – he has. Hunt mentions “underperforming free schools”, as well as downgrading teacher professionalism and so on.

But then he goes on to say….nothing. Nothing about the increasingly indefensible private Academy chains spending our children’s money on fancy office furniture and huge salaries for the “executives”. Nothing about the destruction of university-based teacher training in favour of cheap-‘n-cheerful school-based schemes leading to massive teacher shortages. Nothing about the single most unpopular and indefensible policy of the Govian era – Performance Related Pay.

Hunt seems to be implying that teachers are so fed up with the chaos of the last four years that we would happily embrace the status quo no matter how unhappy we are with it.

Wrong, Tristram. Really, you could not be more wrong.

Here’s a clue : ask us. Ask us whether we would rather have no further change for the foreseeable future and keep PRP, or whether we’d rather suffer another change to the pay system and return to national pay scales. Ask us if we’d rather keep totalitarian academy chains controlling schools with rods of iron, and continue to destroy what’s left of LEAs, for the sake of not changing further; or whether we’d support a return to democratically accountable local education authorities overseeing largely autonomous schools under LMS, and the ejection from the education system of self-interested rich men and parasitical “executives”. Go on, ask us.

It’s not just the changing which the majority of teachers don’t like; it’s the changes. And given the choice, I suspect a very large number of us would rather change again than retain the current mentalist, fragmented, marketized, corrupt, nonsensical system which Gove’s vandalism has created.

The Ugly

My main concern might seem trivial, but I think it’s symptomatic of a problem which, if unaddressed, leaves me just as despairing about Hunt as I was about Twigg. And it’s encapsulated in this :

First of all, a period of curriculum stability. ….

A Labour government would …. in the main, continue with the GCSE changes. We would not, however, go ahead with decoupling AS and A Levels. An end to the relentless change will mean teachers can concentrate on what really matters: their subject knowledge and classroom practice.

Here’s my problem with this : the section justifies continuing with the GCSE changes on the grounds of “an end to relentless change”. But the GCSE changes haven’t happened yet. If you want to “end relentless change”, you’d simply stop them happening, as per the A-level reforms, and continue with the current GCSEs until such a time as a sensible non-Govian review and reform can be put in place. By continuing with the GCSE reforms, you are not saving teachers from upheaval, you are enforcing further upheaval. This doesn’t make sense at all.

Which leads me to a sneaking suspicion about Hunt. He must know that as a teacher, I understand the curriculum reforms and know that they’re still preventable. So he must know that I will see this nonsense claim for what it is. So he can’t be speaking to me, despite his apparent address to teachers.

Not for the first time, I feel like he’s superficially addressing me as a teacher, but in actual fact looking over my shoulder at two different audiences. The first is the general public who came to loathe Gove with almost as much passion as teachers, but without, necessarily, the same detailed knowledge and interest. The Tories themselves moved Gove because he was so toxic, so it’s in Labour’s interest to mention him as often as possible to remind voters that voting Tory means supporting the party of Gove. Fine, that’s politics.

But the second audience is more worrying. Who does he think he’s reassuring by refusing to tackle issues like academy chains and PRP, or his continued mealy-mouthed emptiness on issue of the great steaming turd that is Ofsted ? It seems to me that while Hunt plays politics to the public, the underlying message is to that small, closed and self-interested group of people Francis Gilbert termed “the Glob” – academy chain owners/DFE board members, beneficiaries of free school patronage, think-tankers, consultancy firms and other parasitical private interests seeking to enter “the market”, and anyone with “executive” in front of their title who no longer has to go near a classroom but gets to draw a very large salary. And that message seems to be that while he may feel free to throw darts at Gove, and while he’s willing to challenge on those few policies simple enough to be able to be presented to the public as bad/good (unqualified teachers), he has no intention of tackling the underpinning assumptions of the GERM movement. That’s not so good at all.

Overall mark

I’d give Hunt a C for this. He’s tried. He has indeed highlighted some important issues, and he’s made noises which, if sustained, can only give succour to those of us who have almost lost all hope. However, he is still missing some very obvious big issues in his essay, and seems more fixated on the symptoms of the problem rather than the underlying causes. Still, every journey starts with a small step, and all that. I normally expect my students to add at least a grade before the end of the year, so hopefully he’ll pull it round in time for the big May exam.


5 thoughts on “Tristram Hunt – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Whither Primaries in all this??

    Talking of vandalism, every Primary school in the land is wondering what on earth to do without levels. We don’t know what the government wants at the end of the Key Stages 1 & 2. The are no descriptors that tell us what the government is looking for or the standard that needs to be attained. It’s a mess. A thorough destabilising mess.

    Made worse by the high stakes involved if your school does not achieve the required percentages, even when in some small schools one child is worth 3% or more. You must get the percentages or you’re a failing school.

    Followed by the widespread over valuing of KS 1 results in infant schools that leaves Junior Schools with the impossible task of achieving their required progress targets. Our local infant school has been told to manufacture level 3s to prove their worth, which of course will then out pressure on the Junior School but the Secondaries will probably ignore the SATS results and retest them in Yr 7 anyway.

    There’s also one or two practices around the taking of SATS which do not lead to a level playing field. The judicious use of a pointing finger during the test, the practice of reading SATS papers before they are sent off and a little judicious changing of results by pupils (according to mums net).

    Then there’s the inflation of writing scores to ensure targets are met. (Although the government is signalling that it might do something about this with a bit more focussed moderation.)

    It’s a mess, caused by high stakes pressure and lack of integrity. It’s a mess that no one wants to talk about except that group that are sponsored by Michael Gove who admit most of this and say the only way forward is to privatise into academy groupings. This of course now just makes sense. Schools need to work together to raise standards.

    Which of course is how the Local Authorities used to be viewed with their County Advisors and so on. It’s a mess which Labour give no sign of even understanding let alone sorting. All Mr Hunt can give us is a Teacher Oath and keep on as we are doing. 12 x table anyone. We had this argument 20-30 years ago when we did away with ft and inches.

    On the subject of the Primary Curriculum, there was brilliant one designed a few years ago called the ‘Cambridge Primary Review.’ That’s the change we wanted and I’m sure many would still welcome that change now. But Labour didn’t get it then and you can see they still don’t. We’re not even mentioned.


    • Thanks for the detailed comment. Your question about whither primaries is well made. I personally never blog about primaries on the grounds that I know absolutely sod-all about what should or shouldn’t go on in a primary school. Unlike politicians and some media commentators, for whom ignorance is no deterrent to opinion, I know my limitations !


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