Tristram Hunt vs Michael Gove: The battle for the future of education

The shadow Education Secretary has the hopes of a lot of groups resting on his shoulders

The boy was from the Congo – he had witnessed the murder of his mother. Now he was in a foreign country, struggling to learn the language and form a bond with his foster parents. 

Step forward Place2B, a charity which works within school settings to help vulnerable children. In its words, the charity “helps children grow up with prospects, not problems”.

The boy did well – sessions with counsellors developed his resilience, his ability to cope. He secured his “level fours” – the education jargon for reaching the required standard for 11-year-olds in English and maths.

Of course, his case is an extreme example of what can be achieved. But experts say that vulnerable children with less visible, but just as important, problems can be helped in the same way.

It is this kind of approach that Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow Education Secretary, went to see in action as he visited the Divine Mercy Roman Catholic primary school in Manchester, ahead of the announcement this week of a new policy initiative aimed at developing “character” and “resilience” among today’s schoolchildren.

The key to this, he argues, is offering “very extensive one-to-one counselling” to the country’s most vulnerable children. Putting this in place is not as easy as it may sound. Mr Hunt notes: “A lot of these facilities are under pressure in terms of funding.”

Labour, though, will pledge to include training for teachers in delivering classroom lessons in character, resilience and attentiveness if it wins the next election. 

Hunt concedes that it might not be such an attractive soundbite as “1,000 lines and more prep” – as Education Secretary Michael Gove outlined in a policy speech on the next stage of his school reforms last week. But the Labour minister argues that it can be just as effective in raising attainment and standards in the classroom.

Hunt took over the shadow brief for education four months ago.  He is one of the new intake of Labour MPs and comes with a background as a TV historian – a “celebrity” from the world of academe. He has an ideal background for taking on Michael Gove, a minister with an acute eye for a headline and a deep knowledge of history. Hunt has already made his mark – one political commentator spoke of him as “the next British Labour Prime Minister”.

His speech on Wednesday will be the frontbencher’s third major initiative since taking office and, with its accent on the need for turning schools away from being just exam factories, it is likely to be well received by groups as disparate as the Confederation of British Industry and the educational establishment characterised by Gove as The Blob. Both have called for schools to offer a more rounded education than that pushed by Gove.

Hunt’s first stand was to make it clear that Labour would repeal the measures that allow schools to recruit non-qualified teachers, arguing that it has been one of the reasons behind the failure of the free schools exposed in poor reports by education standards watchdog Ofsted in the past few months. 

His second intervention was to announce that Labour would support the idea of an MOT-style test for teachers – a “revalidation” of their skills to use his words,

It offered teachers the kind of continuous professional development they have been crying out for – as will his plans to promote character, resilience and attentiveness – but made it clear he will not shirk from insisting high standards of teaching quality will be maintained under Labour. He has a difficult path to tread. Every time he addresses a major education conference, there are teachers, academics and local authority bureaucrats willing him to decry all Gove’s reforms and hoping he will be their saviour.

He has to avoid being seen just as a spokesman for The Blob, and has taken steps to distance himself from the teachers’ unions. “I don’t support strike action,” he said.  (The National Union of Teachers has called a one-day national strike for 26 March about moves towards introducing performance-related pay, increased pension contributions and increased workload – through keeping schools open for up to 10 hours a day.) “We face very, very difficult economic conditions and it is not going to be easy when we come into power.”

One of the top priorities of a Labour government would be action to help what he calls “the forgotten 50 per cent” –those not seeking a university place. The use of the phrase combines criticism of the present Government’s emphasis on achieving a place at a Russell Group university as the sole measure of success to a tacit acknowledgement that Tony Blair’s 50 per cent target for getting people into university inevitably shifted attention away from those who still did not go.

It will be done through pioneering a new 14 to 19 education programme and introducing a new Technical Baccalaureate as a means of achieving parity between vocational and academic qualifications. He is supportive of the new University Technical Colleges – which are the inspiration of former Conservative Education Secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker. The first, the JCB Academy, serves his Stoke constituency.

“We have much to thank Kenneth Baker for,” he said, “but I don’t want the UTCs to take away the focus from the importance of achieving excellence in our further education colleges.”

Bit by bit, Hunt is staking out his ground for the future of education under a Labour government. One of the intriguing aspects of his speech on Wednesday is that it will be a question of Gove reacting to Labour rather than – as has been the case for most of the past four years – Labour reacting to him.

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