Why Tristram Hunt is the man to teach Gove a lesson

Attlee would have longed for Labour to expose Gove for the charlatan that he is. Enter Hunt, one of Britain’s best young historians and a biographer of Engels.

Tristram Hunt. Image: Getty


Michael Gove is the most destructive Education Secretary we have known in our lifetime. Yet Labour has not laid a glove on him in three years and has allowed him to pose as the friend of the underprivileged child. That’s why Stephen Twigg had to go as shadow education secretary and why his successor, Tristram Hunt, could just be an inspired appointment.

Twigg never effectively confronted Gove’s subtle but deadly attack on the cornerstone of the 1944 Education Act – the right to a school place for all children – or Gove’s ideologically driven assault on teaching as a profession. Even when Twigg spoke at the AGM of the Campaign for State Education, he seemed afraid to take his own side in the argument. If he asked Ed Miliband why he was being fired, I can imagine the Labour leader gave him Clement Attlee’s well-known reply: “Not up to it.”

The whole affair reinforces my long-held view that Miliband is an Attlee figure. Attlee the historian would have been disgusted to see that Gove’s pose as the friend of the underprivileged rests partly on his semi-serious claim to be the heir of communists such as Antonio Gramsci and Bert Ramelson – a claim he backs up with the sort of superficially clever distortion of their views that would do credit to a first-year undergraduate. Attlee would have longed for Labour to expose Gove for the charlatan that he is. Enter Hunt, one of Britain’s best young historians and a biographer of Engels.

Gove, who studied English at university, likes to present himself as a historian, contemptuously rejecting what eminent historians and experienced history teachers tell him about the history curriculum because he wants to give children a celebratory march through the triumphs of England and Englishness. That pretence, I suspect, has just become a whole lot harder to get away with.

Hunt is something of an expert on the 1944 Education Act. He understands that, every year, more children are being left without a school place and that we will be half a million places short by the time of the next general election.

That is why Hunt’s first statement was about free schools (or “parent-led academies”, as he calls them). In some areas there is a surplus of places, because Gove wants free schools to be started not where places are needed but wherever someone wants to set a school up. So people who live in the areas – poor ones, mostly – that aren’t attractive to those such as the journalist Toby Young (who set up a free school in west London) will be short of school places. Under Gove, local authorities are not allowed to set up a school when they identify a need for places. They cannot plan education in their area, so they cannot ensure there are school places for all.

Hunt has pledged, that under Labour, free schools could be set up only where there is a shortage of school places. His statement was neither new nor radical but Twigg had not managed to spell it out clearly.

Most teachers hate Gove. They feel he sneers at them and he has brought in a performance-related pay system that will require them regularly to fill in a form with 43 different categories.

There is no conclusive evidence, from anywhere in the world, that performancerelated pay improves teaching. However, Gove despises educational research almost as much as he despises professional historians. When 127 academics, children’s authors and charity leaders calmly put forward a case, based on detailed research evidence, that the government’s emphasis on formal learning at a very early age damages children’s learning, a spokesman for Gove said: “These people represent the powerful and badly misguided lobby who are responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectations in state schools. We need a system . . . freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop psychology about ‘self-image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.”

Gove not only claims to know more about history than historians and more about education than educationalists; he purports also to know more about how to teach children than those whose lives have been spent doing it.

Because of Gove’s reforms, you don’t need to be a trained teacher to work at a free school or an academy. You don’t need to study any of the research on how children learn, or be taught anything about classroom management, or pick up any of the lessons that generations of teachers have learned the hard way. It’s the arrogance of a politician who mistakes his prejudices for insights. Miliband may just have hit on the right person to deflate it.

Tristram Hunt. Image: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR