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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser