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 is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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Why gender became the ultimate forum for self-expression

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy.

In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.

Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”

While users of Ms hoped that their title would supersede the ranking of spinsters and matrons, Mx relies for its meaning on the persistence of alternatives. You can only be non-binary if there’s a binary against which to define yourself. It is now recommended practice at some US universities for students to declare their preferred pronouns, and mandatory that these should be observed by others. Failure to do so is considered more than a breach of etiquette: “misgendering” is looked on as an act of bigotry, even a kind of verbal violence. This use of gender as self-assertion has an obvious appeal to teenagers and young adults as a parent-baffling subculture, but it starts much younger, too, with a small but growing number of primary-age children announcing that they are trans.

On one of its covers in 2014, Time magazine famously described transgender activism as “America’s next civil rights frontier”, but the proliferation of gender identity is at least as much a consumer choice issue. This was also the year that Facebook introduced its “custom” gender options, though it would perhaps be more accurate to describe them as “expansive presets”. Users can choose anything from “agender” to “two-spirit” via “bigender”, “gender questioning” and “transmasculine”, but what they can’t do is subvert the system by selecting an unapproved option. A feminist wishing to register her objections to the class structure of gender by typing in the word “oppressive”, for example, would be stymied here. However diversified gender identity becomes, it is a precept that everyone has one (if your identity and your body “agree”, you are said to be cisgender).

For some, asserting their identity is enough. For others, aligning their presentation with their sense of self will involve altering their appearance. At the least invasive level, that might demand cross-dressing. A natal female might choose to “bind” her breasts, flattening them to achieve a more masculine silhouette. Many seek prescriptions for opposite-sex hormones. At the most extreme, a trans individual will opt for surgical removal of their secondary sexual characteristics and gonads (more rarely, for surgical construction of opposite-sex genitalia), coupled with a lifetime of hormone replacement therapy.

Hormonal and surgical treatments have been possible only since the mid-to-late 20th century, and for many who choose them, these alterations prove life-changing in a positive way. But beyond the confines of the National Health Service, a consumerist edge to treatment becomes more obvious. There are doctors specialising in private transition medicine whose websites include statements such as “the only person that can actually diagnose [gender dysphoria] is the person living with the feelings”. In other words, the prescription is based not on a doctor’s medical judgement of the patient’s needs but on what the patient asks for (and is willing to pay for).

Plastic surgeons promise to transform transgender patients from “caterpillars” into “beautiful butterflies”, holding out the prospect of becoming one’s “true self”, in the same way they have long sold boob jobs and liposuction to women.

Not everyone accepts this brave new world. For conservatives in the United States, trans issues have become the next battle in the culture wars, and Republican politicians have introduced “bathroom laws” that would legally compel trans men and women to use toilets or changing rooms in line with their birth sex. Gender identity was an issue in last year’s US presidential election; a Tea Party-supporting talk-radio host tweeted: “If you want a country with 63 different genders, vote Hillary. If you want a country where men are men and women are women, vote Trump.” This vehement rejection of gender self-identification creates its own kind of identity politics.

That Donald Trump said that Caitlyn Jenner (the former Olympic decathlete whose transition became public in 2015) would be free to use “any bathroom she wanted” at Trump Towers did little to stop the perception that a vote for Trump was a vote against gender nonconformity. And, in some ways, Trump’s acceptance of Jenner’s right to use the ladies’ lavatories is not wholly at odds with the idea of a world where “men are men and women are women”: it’s just that some of the feminine people were born male and some of the masculine ones were born female. It is unclear what Trump’s presidency will mean for trans rights, but whatever happens in America will influence gender ideology worldwide.

Threats to legal abortion and equal marriage could strain some of the alliances within the trans, LGBT and feminist movements. A trans woman who has undergone surgery is in a very different situation from a male who identifies as a woman but does not want any treatment. A gay, lesbian or bisexual person who is discriminated against for their sexuality does not experience the same oppressions as a trans person (it is an article of faith that gender identity and sexuality are separate things, although in practice the division is not that neat). The political priorities of women who are victimised because they are female will not overlap perfectly with the priorities of transgender women – some of whom complained that the “pussy hats” and signs referring to female genitalia on the anti-Trump women’s marches in January were “exclusionary”.

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy. But the messy relationship between sex and self is not going to be settled imminently.

Sarah Ditum is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times