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30 September 2014

The tests Nicky Morgan must pass if the Tories are to change on education

The new Education Secretary should end the use of unqualified teachers and match Labour's pledge to teach English and maths till 18.

By Tristram Hunt

Later today, Nicky Morgan makes her first address to the Tory faithful as Education Secretary. A peroration of praise for teachers left scarred by her predecessor’s divisive policies is expected to round off an all-round chorus of conciliation.

For Michael Gove’s failure, the Tory logic reasons, was not failing free schools, narrowing curricula, unqualified teachers, or the rising attainment gap between poorer children and their better off peers. It was not the broken manifesto pledge of allowing large infant class sizes to rise by a staggering 200 per cent. Nor was it the catastrophic lack of local oversight which saw radical agendas infiltrate state schools just a few miles down the road from today’s conference location in Birmingham.

No, Michael Gove’s true mistake, this argument concludes, was to communicate his agenda in too strident language; to not take a sufficiently emollient tone with his numerous opponents.  And, ever the shallow PR man, our Prime Minister reasons it is enough to repackage the style without correcting the substance – an epitaph that could just as easily stand for his long deceased project of Tory modernisation as it does for his approach to education.

The Labour Party’s priorities on education are based upon what our economy needs most and what the evidence tells us works best. We reject the established reform psyche that obsesses over new school structures because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it is the quality of teaching in the classroom that makes the biggest difference to pupil achievement. And we are determined to address this country’s historic failing on education and finally deliver an excellent vocational education system because that is what is most needed to deliver a fairer society and a stronger economy.

In both of these areas we have announced radical reform packages. New high status career routes, better training and development and the revalidation of teacher expertise as a condition of remaining in the profession in the former. More high-quality apprenticeships, a gold standard technical baccalaureate and new Institutes of Technical Education in the latter.

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Yet these two aspirations can only be realised by taking an important first step in each. Because we believe there can be no 21st-century vision for teaching that begins with allowing unqualified teachers into the classroom on a permanent basis. We believe that a great teacher never stops learning and that we should support teachers’ development and growth to be all they can and should be throughout their entire career. However, as an absolute bare minimum, that journey must begin by gaining qualified status as a teacher.

Therefore, Nicky Morgan’s first test today is can she turn her back on the standards-threatening 16 per cent rise in unqualified teachers we saw under her predecessor and commit her government to the simple principle that all teachers should be qualified to teach. Anything less and her credentials to offer an ambitious, high standard future for teaching and learning in this country will lack all credibility.

Her second test will be to match Labour’s policy that all young people – in all educational settings – must learn English and Maths to 18. This is the cornerstone of our drive to raise standards in vocational education and will be a compulsory component of our new, gold-standard Technical Baccalaureate. Far too often our system fails those who leave a traditional school setting at 16 without achieving a good grade at GCSE in English or maths and we need to do far more to help the “forgotten 50 per cent” of young people who pursue vocational options fulfil their potential. That begins by getting the basics right and the Education Secretary must show she understands this by matching Labour’s guarantee.

No doubt, the conference air in Birmingham this week will be thick with talk of the recovery for the few. But if Nicky Morgan fails her tests on unqualified teaching and vocational standards, she too will show her party has no long-term plan for all of England’s young people.