The next challenge for Tristram Hunt: what kind of curriculum does Labour want?

The shadow education secretary must learn from Gove's mistakes and outline a curriculum that goes beyond memorisation and teaching to exams.

Since becoming shadow education secretary, Tristam Hunt has spent a lot of energy cleaning up after the ineffectual tenure of Stephen Twigg. Clearly stating Labour’s position on free schools and attacking their evident shortcomings, he's made an effective start (despite a furore over performance-related pay). Now, with his initial work done, Hunt has the task of coordinating Labour’s own education policy, for which he will need to ask the question, what kind of education do we want? What do we want our children to learn? What do we need them to learn?

Michael Gove has been effusive in his defence of a very traditional model of education; he recently designed a new curriculum with more focus on memorising mathematical equations. Representing the formal model of education promoted by Gove, the new curriculum (due to take effect from September 2015) also includes similar memorisation with regards to spelling and punctuation. Those who criticise these measures are accused of neglecting rigour and standards in schools. What is obvious from these plans though, is the short-sighted and narrow conception of education that Gove holds.

Setting high standards in the hope of generating high attainment is all well and good, but Labour’s education model must incorporate more than just memorisation and teaching to exams. Gove’s support for increasing basic literacy and numeracy is of course right, especially considering the UK’s recent ranking in the OECD education survey, but he remains blinded by dogma. Does memorising facts ever genuinely educate a child? They may be able to pass tests, but do they understand? Teaching to exams and force feeding pre-prepared information to children is a recipe for disaster, risking alienating them from exactly what you are trying to promote: education.

Exams and testing are  a necessity, but they have far too much influence over the reality of education. In his narrow vision of school education, Gove places an excessive amount of emphasis on examinations, and leaves out the other benefits and possibilities of schools. The informal education offered by schools is just as important as the formal; it offers vital experience of interaction and of opportunity that should not be ignored. The environment of a school is very important in the full education of children. In not looking at the atmosphere of schools, at the environment created by a school education limited by this form of learning, Gove is further demonstrating his blinkered idea of what education should be.

Among the many victims of such a narrow model for schooling is creativity, both for students and teachers. Sir Ken Robinson has written in the past about Gove’s stifling effect upon creativity in schools, and the knock-on effects on a vital part of the economy. Creativity is not just poetry or performance art; it is an integral part of businesses, charities, hospitals and other major bodies. Not allowing an avenue for creative expression, whatever form it may take, is illogical and damaging both to education as an institution and to children as individuals. The assumption made by Gove's curriculum is that with enough effort, all children will respond to one model of education; this is absurd. Not only does creativity have a role to play in wider society and the economy, it also is integral to teaching children. Teachers must be able to use their judgement when teaching as Children respond differently to different methods. For that we need a government that trusts teachers, and teachers that trust the government, precisely what we lack at the moment.

What else is left out of Gove’s curriculum? What do Labour need to change? For one thing, sex education. Sex education, and drink and drug awareness comprise part of what is a poor PSHE system. Sex education was only mentioned once in Labour’s conference speeches, by Yvette Cooper. A proper PSHE curriculum would improve self-esteem, bullying, gender relations, race relations and understanding of substance abuse, but it is being left behind in the rush to measure child attainment as statistics. Labour must give it the attention it deserves.

Gove would likely question the importance of curiosity, critical analysis and a healthy cynicism, but they too should be present in schools. What is wrong with teaching kids in maths how a bar chart can be used to manipulate perception of statistics? In the modern world of mass advertising, statistical mudslinging matches between papers, and more surveys than can be counted, it is vital that there is an understanding of this. We cannot force our children to learn everything, but we can certainly try to help them make more informed decisions, to understand that a lot of what they see is distorted.

Labour should adapt the 'whole person care' of its health policy into 'whole child education'; an education policy that aims to educate the whole child, and not just their examination capabilities. Labour has the capacity to push for long-term policies and for early intervention; a few days ago, Ofsted chief Sally Morgan suggested that children should be in schools from the age of two and three. Labour needs to be able to aim high with policies like these. Sooner rather than later, Hunt needs to be able to stand up and describe the kind of education system he wants.

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt in his seat of Stoke Central in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan Holden leads on political research at ComRes. He tweets @DanSHolden.

Photo: Getty
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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem