Where Labour's education team should look for inspiration

A travel itinerary for Stephen Twigg from Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss.

It is reported that there will be cross-party talks between the education secretary, Michael Gove, and his shadow, Stephen Twigg, later this summer on the curriculum. This is good news. The curriculum should reflect best international practice, not be a political football. I know that Stephen has already been fact-finding in Japan and Sweden and to help out I have developed an itinerary for him to find the brightest and best.

Stephen should start his tour in the wheat fields of Calgary. One of the top western entries in the OECD PISA tables (based on a common test for 15 year olds), Canada is maths heaven. And Alberta has scaled the greatest heights of all. Spurred on by a strong oil sector with growing demand for tech savvy people this province has created a leading maths curriculum. Courses on algebra and geometry are both rigorous and modern. Just what we need to drive forward a tech sector revolution in the UK.  He can then go east to Ontario. I can attest from Ontarian teachers currently working in Norfolk that there is a huge enthusiasm for maths here. He’ll also see what a broad curriculum centred on English, maths, science, history, geography and foreign languages looks like.

If he has time he should go down to Massachusetts. The US state outperforms the UK despite similar culture and demographics. There is a strong presumption of studying maths to 18 where it leads the pack amongst US states. The curriculum builds in layers like an onion, not the modular “learn and forget” that has dominated British education. Almost all students have to study binomial theorem, complex numbers and use logarithmic functions extensively as part of their compulsory high school maths courses.

Stephen should then spend some time in South East Asia. This part of the world dominates the international rankings. Although some concern about rote learning is leading to revisions in Hong Kong and Singapore, the clear work ethic is an inspiration. There’s no complacency here with Singapore focusing on courses for teachers that boost students’ performance. Students are expected to master concepts earlier than in the UK, both Hong Kong and Singapore expect students to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions by the end of primary school and Singapore introduces quadratic equations in the equivalent of year 9. These are now included in the UK's draft curriculum released by Michael Gove earlier this week.

India is teeming with interest in new tech. Stephen could join the country’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the packed out Indian Science Congress, thousands of papers presented and local school kids queuing in the heat for entry to a science exhibit. The UK Government has abandoned ICT and is now developing the replacement. Perhaps a visit to one of the highly successful Indian Institutes of Technology will provide some clues. There is no doubt the country has a passion for science that the UK should emulate. As Angela Saini notes in her book Geek Nation, the International Science Olympiads receive as much, if not more, coverage in the Indian press as the Olympics.

Next stop should be Germany and examining the reasons behind their renewed economic success. Stephen should chat with his fellow social democrat Gerhard Schroeder about the education reforms in the early 2000s that allowed the Germans to leapfrog Britain in the PISA league tables. And about why the German public wanted action following their “PISA shock”, when the entire country was outraged by their low rankings. They might have had different problems to the ones the UK faces but Schroeder realised radical reform was the only option. Measures included the introduction of national standards for the first time in all core subjects – German, maths, science and foreign languages – prescribing more rigorous content and reinforced by international benchmarking.

As he heads back to Britain, Stephen should check out potential reforms in the other part of his portfolio, childcare. In the Netherlands, innovative childcare reforms have put flexibility and choice in the hands of parents. The country now has twice the number of childminders per capita as the UK. He should also check out France’s Écoles Maternelle with a higher child to adult ratio than Britain and more qualified staff. In both countries, despite less Government spending, parents are paying out a considerably smaller portion of their income in childcare costs.

There is much to learn from outside the UK - and if Stephen is prepared to take on the vested interests in his own party – potentially room for fruitful discussion. Happy travels!

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to children during a visit at Erika-Mann-Grundschule elementary school in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images.

Elizabeth Truss is the Conservative MP for South West Norfolk

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.