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What happened to Tristram Hunt, and where is Labour’s radicalism on education?

After a strong start, the shadow education secretary's voice is absent from the education debate, and his party is being reactive and not proactive on education. They have less than a year to turn this around.

Tristram Hunt. Photo: Getty
Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt isn't taking advantage of Michael Gove's weakness in the education debate. Photo: Getty

When Tristram Hunt replaced Stephen Twigg as the shadow education secretary, many were hopeful that he would present a renewed and real challenge to Michael Gove’s ideological and unpopular reforms. It seemed like a good start for a week or two, Hunt said that he wouldn’t repeal free schools but rather wanted to reform the model, and after that; silence.

There have been several controversial developments in the saga of Michael Gove recently; the "Trojan Horse" scandal, the changes to the school curriculum and Gove making claims about "British values". Recently, Hunt was meant to be at a conference and was understandably unable to make it due to a hectic schedule of media interviews on the unfolding "Trojan Horse" story. However, in the days that followed it seemed as though he never did those interviews, his voice is absent from the argument and consequently Labour’s presence in the education debate has remained negligible. Fulfilling his opposition duties of holding the government to account, Hunt has raised concerns about the behaviour of cabinet ministers and about the content of the school curriculum; but vitally where is his and Labour’s alternative model?  

Whether or not this refusal to engage positively with the education debate is due to the individual failings of Hunt and Twigg or a wider unwillingness, or even inability, to take on the mantle of education reform within the party, is unclear. Michael Gove’s free school programme, for all its similarities with New Labour’s Academies policy, is a different proposition entirely for the future of our education system. Although the funding models of the two systems are very similar, free schools have a level of autonomy from local authorities that Academies never did. This is precisely the reason that the Toby Youngs of this world and other Gove followers are such fans of the policy, but it is also the same reason why it presents such a threat to our education system. This set-up of control regarding free schools is indicative of Gove’s broken ideology; he supports autonomy for schools and a smaller state, but wields significant centralised power and fights to reduce localism.

Considering the stories that are now circling Gove, not least last week’s patronising announcement about British values, it is impressive that he is still standing. For a long time the education secretary has had something of a Teflon coating; he was perhaps the most dangerous reformist in the cabinet and was progressing at speed, apparently unchecked. Now, after the recent reported infighting with Theresa May, Gove’s status is not what it once was and he is far more vulnerable. In this context, why isn’t Hunt taking this opportunity to win, or even just engage actively with the debate on education? This isn’t an argument entirely around religious extremism but rather about the set-up of our education system; the threat of extremism is a sideline to the wider issue of accountability.

This all leads to a central question to which there is no real answer: where is Labour’s radicalism when it comes to education?  The Labour party policy review has work as one of its streams of focus, alongside place and family. Within work specifically there is focus on skills and education, with a view to improve efficiency and satisfaction in the world of work but where is this showing in the party’s education policy? Whatever happened to "education, education, education"? What about reform to vocational education, of which the Labour party has been a champion? Yesterday afternoon, Thomas Piketty spoke at an event in parliament with Stewart Wood. In his talk, Piketty said that Labour must make a priority of investing in education. Considering his popularity and political capital amongst the left, why is the Labour party not using Piketty’s book as part of a push to put education on the front bench of policies for 2015? The fact that there are no answers to these questions means that Labour is being reactive and not proactive on education; they have less than a year to turn this around.