At the Wellington College Festival of Education last June, I heard Tristram Hunt speak for the first time. He was nervous, ill-informed and uncomfortable. Give him a year, I thought, bearing in mind that he had only been schools minister for two months.
Hunt was due to return to the festival this month having been promoted to Shadow Education Secretary in the meantime. How did he fare one year on? I cannot say, as Hunt did not even turn up. This was not much of a surprise. Tristram Hunt is failing to marshal any serious opposition to the Gove revolution in schools, and nowhere is this failure laid bare more clearly than when addressing an audience.
In early June, Hunt and Gove spoke one after the other at an event organised by the think tank Policy Exchange. The contrast was absolute: as usual, Gove was thoughtful, well-informed and passionate about English schools. In comparison, Hunt delivered a wordy, scripted speech in which his hyperbolic attacks on Gove’s record, ‘gross negligence’, ‘low expectations’, ‘ideological privatisation’, contrasted with the petty content of his actual criticisms.
When it came to the questions, Hunt shook like a leaf as his poor understanding of the issues within state schools was unveiled. He answered each question with vague politico-speak, ‘I’m all up for improvement’; ‘let’s have that conversation’; ‘let’s take that forward’; ‘y’know…’. As I left the room, one attendee observed ‘I think I heard him say ‘erm’ more times than he said ‘education’.’ For a media-honed television historian and supposed bright young thing of the Labour party, such a poor performance was startling.
Partly explaining Hunt’s inability to combat Gove is his lack of alternative policies. He has repeatedly described free schools as a ‘dangerous ideological experiment’, but is unable to explain why, and strangely unwilling to promise to end to the dangerous experiment were Labour to win the next election. In a speech to the Fabian society this week, Hunt warned that the Conservative party—though unwilling to admit it—intend to privatise English state schools. Unable to attack actual government policies, he has resorted to making some up so that he can.
Similarly, Hunt has tried to use the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham to attack the expansion of the academies programme. He claims that the Birmingham schools show Gove is guilty of ‘gross negligence’ for freeing schools from local authority control without ensuring sufficient new oversight. Hunt conveniently ignores the fact that all six schools involved in the Trojan Horse scandal were under the control of Birmingham city council until 2012.
More worrying still are Hunt’s actual policy proposals, which reflect a continued attachment to New Labour command-and-control politics. He wants all teachers to have teaching qualifications, but cannot explain why. Teaching qualifications are not necessary in the independent sector, and only became compulsory in state schools in 1973. University education faculties are home to the damaging ‘child-centred’ dogmas that have harmed the quality of teaching in so many schools, and their ascendency coincides exactly with the most calamitous period in the history of England’s state schools, as I have tracked in my recent book Progressively Worse. Strangely for a historian, Hunt does not acknowledge this. As for his proposal that teachers should be re-licenced throughout their career, Hunt has managed to light upon a system that could be even more destructive of teacher autonomy than Ofsted.
In February, Hunt promoted teaching of ‘character’ in schools, through giving lessons in managing emotions, empathy, kindness, dealing with stress and the like. This sounds alarmingly like New Labour’s 2005 ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning’ (SEAL) National Stategy, an expensive and embarrassing failure. Similarly, Hunt has backed the Labour Skills Task Force’s proposal of a National Baccalaureate at sixth form, which would combine A-levels with ‘personal skills development programme’ and an ‘extended project’. Again, this sounds like a rehash of the 2004 Tomlinson Report, a proposal with such a clear consequence of dumbing down the examination system that even New Labour shelved it.
As for the long awaited and grandly named ‘Blunkett Review’, the main policy proposal was the appointment of eighty local Directors of School Standards, who sound rather like Gove’s Regional Schools Commissioners, except there will be more of them. So many of them, in fact, that they would effectively signal the return of Local Authority power by another name.
Tristram Hunt’s inability to propose credible policy alternatives is, in part, more evidence of Michael Gove’s success as Education Secretary. However, there is more to it than that. Since his appointment to the shadow cabinet, Hunt has failed to educate himself about English state schools (see his long list of gaffs chronicled by Toby Young), but has somehow found the time to publish a history of the British Empire to widespread critical acclaim. Ask Hunt about the role of Hong Kong in colonial trade routes, and he’ll bang on for hours. Ask him about the possible consequences of removing the National Curriculum levels from state schools, and he’ll gape like a mute. Hunt is performing so poorly as a politician because he has not yet given up being a historian. And people say Gove has his head stuck in the past…
As a history teacher set to start teaching at a free school in September, I quake at the prospect of Tristram Hunt as Education Secretary. Due to his unwillingness to think hard about English schools, he is only too happy to defer to the education establishment. Members of the so-called Blob have been disempowered but not eliminated, and are patiently waiting in the wings for a Labour victory in 2015. From the policies that he has proposed so far, Hunt as Education Secretary would mean more national directives, more local governance, more paperwork, and more quangocrats telling teachers how to do their job.
This would be a sad end to the new era of a ‘schools led system’ which Michael Gove’s reforms are doing so so much to achieve.