Stephen Twigg is bubblingly enthusiastic over a school visit he has paid early that morning. It was to a girls' school in Tower Hamlets, east London – one of Britain's most disadvantaged boroughs, where the largely Bengali intake has achieved far higher-than-average GCSE results. A total of 78 per cent of pupils at Mulberry girls' school obtained five A* to C grades at GCSE, including maths and English, and 80 per cent of the pupils are going on to university.
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has set what some consider a hard target of schools in Mulberry's circumstances getting to 60 per cent.
It is two months since Labour leader Ed Miliband appointed Twigg as his education spokesman – plucking him from a more junior foreign affairs post. He is no stranger to the education brief as he was Schools Minister in the second Blair administration – a post he held until he lost his Southgate seat at the 2005 election. In an earlier life, he was also president of the National Union of Students.
He describes himself as "over the moon" about the decision to appoint him to the schools job and – while you would never expect a Shadow Cabinet appointee to describe him or herself as "bored" or "indifferent" about their new posting – one suspects he might not have mustered exactly the same terminology had he been re-appointed to his shadow Foreign Office brief.
At present, he is busy familiarising himself with the sector. "I try and fit in two school visits a week," he says. A lot has changed since 2005. The change of government has brought a sharper focus to the academies programme. While Labour concentrated on converting poorly performing schools in disadvantaged areas into academies and opening new ones in the same communities, the Conservatives have opened up the programme to all schools.
Michael Gove has made no secret of his desire to turn every school into an academy or a "free" school – run by parents, faith groups or private concerns but with taxpayer funding. "I'm just a bit worried that Michael Gove wants to put all his eggs in the one basket," he says. "There are other ways of making a school successful."
One of those he has spotted on his journeys is in Cornwall, where the majority of schools will have become part of co-operative trusts in the new future. "I think one of the things that has struck me more than anything else is that we set in motion a lot of collaborative projects between schools when we were in office," he says. "They are now really well developed."
He would not rule out academies joining this kind of partnership – sharing good practice. He points out that some academies are sponsored by the Co-op.
On "free" schools, he caused quite a stir and was accused of making a U-turn when he announced soon after taking office that Labour would judge "free" schools on their merits and would not be closing down those that were successful. "I thought I was just building on what Andy Burnham (his predecessor in the post) was doing," he says. "You would never want to be in the position of closing down a successful school." So far he has only visited one "free" school but he does plan to visit more in the run-up to shaping Labour's new policies.
As to what they would be should Labour be returned to power at the next election, he is coy. "It's early days yet," he says. "We don't want to end up with a policy that's right for 2012 when we've got to go to the country in 2015."
He is critical, though, of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which, he says, is in danger of narrowing curriculum options. He concedes, though, that it has been helpful in boosting the take-up of modern foreign languages at GCSE. "The mistake we made in government wasn't in making languages optional at 14," he says. "That was the right decision. The mistake we made was in not launching the primary strategy (encouraging take-up in primary schools) first and then making it optional at 14. If you can really get children enthusiastic at a younger age, then hopefully they will go through with it to GCSE."
The success in promoting a better take-up of languages at GCSE is more than outweighed, he believes, by a narrowing of the curriculum elsewhere. "I'm very very concerned about the negative consequences of the English Baccalaureate," he says. "Other academic subjects are being squeezed out – such as religious studies. Other areas of the curriculum, too – like music and practical subjects like design and technology." (Under Gove's Baccalaureate, a pupil will gain the certificate for obtaining top grade GCSEs in English, maths, two sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanities subject – either history or geography).
One of the solutions could be, he argues, to adopt an approach pioneered in some schools – notably the City academy in Norwich – whereby key stage four (traditionally for 14- to 16-year-olds doing their GCSEs) is expanded to three years, giving more time for youngsters to adopt a broader approach to the curriculum. Key stage two – for 11- to 14-year-olds – could be concertinaed into two years. "They could then do the Baccalaureate and have room for other subjects besides," he says.
Which leads us to discuss how effective Michael Gove has been as an Education Secretary. How would Twigg rate him? Many politicians would shy away from this question, but he at first decides to award him a C minus. "I don't want to be too negative," he says. "His opening six months were terrible – the whole Building Schools for the Future cancellation was terrible and then there was the School Sports Partnership."
Gove initially wanted to scrap national funding for the scheme and leave it up to schools to support it themselves. There was an outcry from sports organisations and – with the 2012 London Olympics looming – a compromise was agreed. The English Baccalaureate, he argues, was also a case of the Government not thinking through the consequences of its actions. It was introduced in league tables in the middle of the school year, without warning, and some heads reacted to it by switching pupils' GCSE options in mid-year to obtain a higher ranking in the tables.
"The Government is quite rightly extolling the virtues of the JCB academy in Staffordshire (the first of the new breed of University Technical Colleges designed to give high-quality vocational training for 14- to 19-year-olds, for teenagers who prefer that route) yet it scores 0 per cent on the English Baccalaureate [it does not do languages]. What sense does that make?"
Yet he praises Gove for his continued expansion of the Teach First programme, which recruits high-flying graduates into teaching. It was one of the innovations introduced under his stewardship at education – "probably the best decision I ever made," Twigg adds. He is also full of praise for the Government's decision to fund free nursery places for disadvantaged two- and three-year-olds – another decision first mooted under Labour. He reflects again. "Maybe I should award him a borderline C/D pass – you get extra coaching if you're in that category," he says.
He is well aware that he first shot into the nation's consciousness when he defeated Michael Portillo at Southgate in the 1997. The pictures of the jubilant Twigg reflecting on his victory are the third most-watched television moment in history, behind only the man landing on the moon and Nelson Mandela's walk to freedom.
"It is now nearly 15 years ago and I'm well aware there is nothing else that I'm so well known for," he acknowledges. "Perhaps if I become Secretary of State for Education in 2015 I'll get a chance to be known for something else."Reuse content