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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.