Tristram Hunt’s Observer Piece : Replying to Nothing is Hard

Tristram Hunt has written a piece for The Observer .    I wouldn’t say I’m excited by it. I had to read it twice in case I’d missed any actual content the first time. But sadly, I hadn’t. There just wasn’t any content. Anyway, I’ve helpfully indulged in a little Kremlinology and pulled it apart for any readers too depressed to be able to face reading it raw themselves. 

Another average week in the education culture wars. Last Wednesday, the Girls’ Schools Association denounced the Labour party for our policy to have private schools earn their tax rebates. Last Thursday, the Tory right resuscitated plans for a sheeps-and-goats, CSE/O-level exam. Then Tatler magazine published its state school guide, informing parents: “Sometimes the right choice isn’t the most expensive one.” Twitter responded in kind.

As the election looms, I am keener than anyone for education policy to be debated. But I am also desperate for a conversation that leaves behind the incendiary rhetoric of “the Blob” and “class war”, and with it the punitive policies of recent years that have served to undermine the best kind of profession-led school improvement.

So far, so good. There’s no actual content, but like a good New Labour piece, it manages to find a policy from the Tories which is so deeply unpleasant that even a Blairite would risk criticising it, such as a return to O-Levels and CSEs. However, note that this is a criticism of a policy which has not been implemented. Thus there’s no actual requirement to DO ANYTHING to reverse it.

There are two challenges the debate is missing. The first is the scandal of 1.5m English children not getting a good enough education. Before the Christmas break, the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, identified 13 local authorities where results were particularly troubling. But more concerning is the National Audit Office report that slammed the Department for Education over the “significant gaps” it had in its strategy. Which is bureaucratese for “ministers don’t have a clue”.

Here’s our first reference to failing schools, and oooh, 1.5m children. That’s a big number. How rubbish must our schools be ? Also note an attack on local authorities. Apparently all these 1.5m children are in LEA schools, but not in academies, which now educate most secondary age children. Note also the unqualified acceptance of the latest Wilshaw brainfart. Which is interesting, given that he’s going to go on and criticise the organisation Wilshaw leads.

 The second challenge is the inability of existing schemes to take our schools to the next stage. In short, a realisation that a one-size-fits-all template for getting poorly performing schools into an adequate state doesn’t then provide the broader, stretching education we all want to see. So it’s a dual challenge both to tackle ingrained underattainment, especially in coastal towns and among white, working-class boys, and reform the accountability systems that threaten to constrict school potential.

“Taking to the next stage” means “not good enough yet”. In case you didn’t get that, there’s a direct reference to “poorly performing schools”, and a further suggestion that no schools are providing a “broader, stretching education”, and then another reference to “unerattainment”. Four criticisms of schools in one paragraph is truly Govian. Michael must be so proud of Tristram here. I particularly like the reference to white working class boys and coastal towns. There’s absolutely nothing proposed for either of these demographics. Just Tristram repeating some catchphrases which have bounced around the edupolicy sphere in the last six months.

 The Labour party’s answer begins with a commitment to give all schools the freedom they need to excel. From Norway to Singapore, successful school policies focus on quality of teaching and strength of leadership. Unfortunately, David Cameron jettisoned all that for relentless structural reform, curriculum instability and an assault on teachers as “enemies of promise”.

Again, you’ll note that while policies are criticised (rightly), there is absolutely no action set out which would reverse the harm these policies are causing. No reversing of structural reform, no halting of curriculum changes, and no ending of the assault on teachers through PRP. He’s going to carry on whipping us while telling us how much he hates the distraction the whipping causes us.

We need to reform Ofsted. Deciding on a school is a big decision for parents and Ofsted’s seal of approval is often a first port of call. Quite rightly, schools wear their Good or Outstanding badge with pride. But with too many headteachers now arguing that Ofsted can be a barrier to success, we need to be more radical about the future of inspection.

Ofsted has to move beyond box-ticking and data-dependence. Too much teacher workload is the product of preparing for an inspection. Yes, Ofsted must confront mediocrity, but it must also start to allow heads the space to innovate and develop a richer criterion of school achievement. So it’s time for greater stability in the inspection framework, more consistency between inspectors and an end to any prescribed system of teaching. And, under a Labour government, Ofsted would inspect on a “broad and balanced curriculum”, so you cannot be Outstanding if you have stripped out the drama, music and sport from the school day.

We also have to stop the politicisation of our schools inspectorate. It is not Ofsted’s place to adjudicate on whether schools have performance-related pay, whether a good school should be converted into an academy or to follow every ministerial fad on British values or otherwise. With £47bn of public money spent on English schools, we need high accountability.

This is the bit which is being trailed, and it’s this which Hunt is hoping will have teachers cheering and motivating themselves to leave their marking and vote Labour in the election. But look again – there’s nothing here. Nothing. His very first line places plate armour around the corrupt, venal and harmful institution that is Ofsted, and then he makes a few statements which Ofsted will happily lie and say that they don’t do anyway, so business as usual. There is no reform here at all. In fact, if anything, the only actual commitment here is to INCREASE the box-ticking by adding a further prescribed box on the curriculum. This is a mish mash of contradiction and vacuous jargon.

What we cannot afford to discourage is the appetite for radical improvement. The impact of digital technology in the classroom, social media, the latest neuroscience – these insights need to be harnessed and shared and scaled up. Under Labour, new schools would be built in areas of need with specific mandates to explore innovative educational approaches.

Hang on, Tristram, I thought endless curriculum reforms were a dreadful distraction ? As for the final sentence, I don’t think you have to be as cynical as me to smell the stench of a New Labour continuation of Gove’s cancerous Free School policy here.

If we need innovation everywhere, we don’t want “Neets” anywhere. It is unacceptable that we still have a dysfunctional skills system. Every year, we fail to train tens of thousands in skills for which there is ready employment. For the Labour party, education is fundamental to social justice and economic growth – and our passion for vocational education underlines that.

Yes, great. Proposals ? Any ? Go on, just a teaser ? No ? Oh well…

 Aristotle believed education should “be contestable”. My 2015 hope is that we can contest it without the US-style culture war rhetoric of recent years. Because amid all the predictable nonsense from the Girls’ Schools Association came the good news that great school leaders – Sir John Townsley, Dame Kate Dethridge and Dame Oremi Evans – had been honoured for services to education. Labour’s plan is simple: to give them and their colleagues the freedom and challenge they need to make every state school – as Tatler would have it – the right choice.

Deep space is actually less empty than this final, meaningless paragraph.

In sum :

Actual proposals : zero

I heard it from a well-connected person who speaks to Hunt that the reason for Hunt’s complete lack of any policies is that he believes there are no votes in school reform. To which my answer would be : even if that were true, then there are no lost votes in school reform, so what’s stopping you ?

Positive or sympathetic references to teachers : one

Positive or sympathetic references to headteachers/leaders : three

Looks like Tristram might be more comfortable dealing with the officer class than the frontline. Who’d have thought it from a classic New Labour figure?

Denigratory references to bad schools : five

Looks like a reality-based approach to managing state education isn’t on the cards any time soon.

Still, it’s not all bad news. A friend told me that Hunt had no interest in education and was expecting to move to a different post after the election. So there’s still a chance we might get someone post-May who (a) knows what they’re actually talking about and (b) might have the bollocks to do something useful for a change. And at least he’s not Stephen Twigg.

One can hope.

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8 thoughts on “Tristram Hunt’s Observer Piece : Replying to Nothing is Hard

  1. A very astute dissection of Hunt’s non-proposals. You’re right about the inherent contradictions in this piece. Another point I picked up on was his wish for arts subjects to be more represented in the curriculum. Yet it is the ‘English Baccalaureate’ measure, which has not been diminished by current proposals for ‘progress 8’ which causes schools to reduce these subjects and inflate curriculum time for ‘core’ subjects. It might be interesting to see if the Greens have any concrete policies to underpin what seem to be some encouraging noises from their direction. Keep up the good work disidealist!

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  2. Fantastic, I’m glad that you’ve written this piece. I read Hunt’s piece as a superficially comforting bit of policy flavour designed to get teachers to put a cross in the Labour box next May, without actually proposing anything whatsoever. His line about coastal towns and white working class boys is particularly cynical.

    Given that there is nothing about abolishing academies and free schools, and since nobbling Ofsted is very much on academy sponsors’ wish lists, I think we can see direction that a Labour government would take will be virtually indistinguishable from Cameron and co.

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  3. More Labour ‘fairy dust’ in the eyes here from Good Fairy Hunt. For a few giddy seconds the sun comes out, the birds tweet in the trees and the little folk dance in the streets, before the real Tristram Hunt flies in, astride Gove’s broomstick.

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  4. Excellent. I am still waiting for anyone in Labour to recognise the existence of the Global Education Reform Movement and its relation to neo-liberalism. Without taking that on board it is all mere fiddling while Rome burns (or while teachers leave in drove and children are reduced to production line data products).

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  5. Sadly, this sort of meaningless bollocks is not at all surprising. Some may remember one of his first TV appearances after being appointed Shadow Ed Sec on “Question Time”. It was clear from the start that he just came out with the same old tosh as the Tories in a different guise, that he had NO CONCEPT of what teaching as a job was like, and little clue about how effective schools function as supportive communities. What bothers me is how very close many in Labour are to some of the neo-liberal ‘GERM’-loving weirdos and geeks that had the ear of Gove. Their concepts are very similar, politically they are very close, and there is some mutual admiration and ‘cross-fertilisation’ going on (Gove always had a high opinion of Lord Adonis, for example).

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