Poor Tristram Hunt: Labour will be catastrophic for education

Steve Mastin argues that although a 1st rate historian, Tristram Hunt is a third rate politician and a fourth rate shadow education secretary. 

On May 8th, we could wake up to find not only that Miliband and Balls hold the levers of power but, worse still, that Tristram Hunt is Education Secretary.  I say we, meaning those like me who are teachers in state schools.  Tristram Hunt is a first class historian but a third rate politician and (generously) a fourth rate shadow secretary for education.  I don’t say this as a Conservative who is simply wanting to bash the lefties; but as a teacher who is well informed about politics and wants to know what I face should the other side get into Number 10.

I know he is a fourth rate shadow secretary, because I worked closely with Michael Gove when we were in Opposition.  For two years before the 2010 general election, Gove not only had a clear vision for what he wanted our education system to look like (whether you liked it or not), but also a detailed plan for how that was going to be achieved from his first day in the office on the top floor of the Department for Education.  Dear, well-meaning Tristram has neither of those things.  With only a few months before the election, he is yet to unveil a single policy of note and certainly has no plan for what he will do on day one.

Think I’m being a tad harsh? I asked my A level Politics class last week a simple question.  This is a group of sharp minded, politically astute and savvy students who read widely, watch anything political on tv, and thrive on the latest political announcement.  The question was, “Can you tell me any Labour education policies?”  Silence.  Blank looks.  And then, a tentative, “Do they want to stop homophobic bullying?”  Stop homophobic bullying?  Who’s going to disagree with that?  Indeed a simple surf on their webpage under the promising banner ‘Policies’ will unearth all sorts of similarly anodyne, even dull, statements.  “Support teachers by providing high quality professional development.”  Nothing to disagree with there.  Great policy, Tristram.  Did you come up with that all by yourself?

The only possible statement that could be read as vaguely interesting is “ensure all teachers in state schools become qualified.”  Become qualified?  That means work towards it, doesn’t it?  So how long will this take?  And if an excellent Physics teacher with fantastic results but without a PGCE refuses to be ‘trained’, will you sack her Tristram?  I don’t think so; excellent Physics teachers are like hen’s teeth.  Considering most (possibly all?) of his teachers in the independent sector did not go through teacher training, does that mean that their first-class degree from Cambridge is worthless?  Or the Music teacher who inspires on a daily basis and gives up his time after school to organise concerts will be removed from post because he does not have the right letters after his name?  Don’t get me wrong, I still believe the best way into the profession involves a strong partnership between university and school like my year-long Cambridge history PGCE, but it is not the only route into teaching, particularly when we need to recruit and retain the best teachers to teach our children. Another route, Teach First, involves only six weeks training in August before you are dropped into a tough inner-city school in September – is that a qualification, Tristram?

The big Gove reforms changed the education landscape within a few years and he was crystal clear in Opposition how and when these reforms would be introduced.  Some of them are still controversial and even teachers are divided about whether the impact has always been positive.  So lots of room for Labour to show what side they’re on, you would think. Does Tristram agree or disagree with the Gove reforms?  It’s hard to tell.

The most controversial of all Gove’s reforms was the establishment of free schools, with 251 to date and another 110 awaiting approval.  The most interesting statement on Tristram’s website boldly proclaims that he will “end the free schools programme”.  That’s about as punchy as it gets but then there are no bullet points of what this means in practice.  I’m not clear if Tristram will force the 251 schools to close against the wishes of parents and if so, where he will send all of the free schools children.  Perhaps he means that the existing ones will be permitted to continue their excellent work with outstanding results but the 100 new ones will be shelved.  The difficulty is that Tristram doesn’t say.  He won’t commit to anything.

Gove dramatically expanded Labour’s academies programme to the point that the majority of secondary schools, including mine, are now free from local authority control.  He launched an ambitious reform of our GCSE exams to make them more rigorous and prevent pupils from retaking exams in an endless cycle of drudgery where the joy of learning was lost.  Gove ensured that headteachers could reward those excellent teachers who not only work hard every evening preparing lessons and marking until midnight, but also run after-school clubs, visits to the theatre, D of E camping expeditions, lunchtime revision sessions, concerts, and World War Battlefields trips etc.  rather than those who clock off when the bell goes.  Then there was the slimming down of the National Curriculum with a greater emphasis on knowledge.  All of these monumental reforms took place at breath-taking speed within the last four years because Gove had done his homework in Opposition.

Tristram has floated a few ideas to see if they would gain traction.  A Hippocratic oath for teachers was pilloried with mock oaths appearing all over social media about promising to do what the Ministry said, or marking until midnight or working a 60 hour week until forced out of the profession through exhaustion.  And then there was his other gem of licensing teachers every five years, now quietly dropped.  Tony Blair famously said his three priorities were ‘education, education, education’.  Is it any wonder that the former general secretary of the NUT said that Labour had no ‘coherent vision’ for education?  The Greens have a clear education policy and it is loopy.  Ukip as well.  It’s not too late for poor Tristram Hunt to say what he thinks, but I fear he doesn’t know what he thinks so I can’t even disagree with him.

Steve Mastin is Head of History at a mixed comprehensive academy in Cambridgeshire, a history department consistently rated outstanding by Ofsted.  He helps to train history teachers for Cambridge University and internationally for the Ministries of Education in Kazakhstan and Singapore.  He was a Conservative parliamentary candidate in 2010 and is chairman of the Conservative Education Society