Leader: Tristram Hunt could allow Labour to regain control of the education debate

The new shadow education secretary's eloquence and media savviness will allow him to challenge the self-confident Michael Gove.

Michael Gove can plausibly claim to be the most disruptive education secretary since the Second World War. When Labour left office in 2010, there were just 203 academy schools. There are now 3,364, and most secondaries are outside local authority control. In addition, 174 “free” schools have opened, further complicating a fragmented system.

Confronted by this pace of change, Labour has often been incoherent in its response. Having introduced academies while in government, it has been unsure whether to welcome Mr Gove’s reforms as an extension of its own plans, or to dismiss them as ideological and divisive. The teaching unions and the left have accused the party of giving the Education Secretary a free ride, while Mr Gove and the right have accused it of defending “producer interests” uncritically. Parents, most of whom merely want a good local school and are largely uninterested in dogma and ideology, have been left with the impression that Labour has little constructive to say about education.

Yet the appointment of Tristram Hunt as shadow education secretary could help Labour regain control of the debate. As an admired historian, he has an unquestionable commitment to academic rigour; his eloquence and media savviness will also allow him to challenge credibly the self-confident Mr Gove.

In his first days in the post, Mr Hunt has clarified where Labour agrees with the Education Secretary and where it differs. He was right to pledge that the party will not close down existing free schools – a move that would be unwise, given their popularity with parents, and premature, given the lack of data on their performance. He was also correct to highlight the flaws in Mr Gove’s so-called revolution. At present, the new schools, which are entirely state-funded, are located with no regard to whether there is a shortage or a surplus of places in the local authority. According to Mr Gove’s vision, standards will rise as good schools are forced to compete with better ones yet such market utopianism makes little sense when almost half of English school districts will have more primary pupils than places in two years’ time. Faced with this demographic reality, Mr Hunt has sensibly concluded that investment must be prioritised in the areas where it is most needed.

After founding the NHS, Nye Bevan is said to have declared: “If a bedpan is dropped on a hospital floor in Tredegar, its noise should resound in the Palace of Westminster.” Mr Gove’s reforms operate according to the same principle. While masquerading as a localiser, he has devised a system in which, once freed from town hall control, schools are directly accountable to the secretary of state. Even for a man of his energy and undoubted ability, this degree of centralisation is unsustainable.

The lack of local oversight has resulted in cases such as that of the Islamic al-Madinah School in Derby, where pupils were allegedly segregated and female teachers were forced to wear headscarves. In response, Mr Hunt has persuasively argued that free schools should be remodelled as “parent-led academies” with greater involvement from local authorities, increased financial transparency and accountability and a requirement for all teachers to hold formal qualifications.

In a passage that Mr Hunt will know well, Karl Marx wrote of religion: “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation, but so he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.” By seeking to salvage what is good in Mr Gove’s reforms while dispensing with what is bad, the shadow education secretary has mirrored this insight.

The Education Secretary’s desire to harness the dynamism and creativity of parents and entrepreneurs for the benefit of pupils is admirable but too often his enthusiasm has curdled into dogma, and his abuse of teachers is discourteous and wrong-headed. Now, at last, Labour is offering a third way.

New shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser