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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.