The other interesting thing about Ed Miliband’s personnel ‘lurch to the left’ last week was that he appointed Tristram Hunt to Labour’s shadow education team to replace Karen Buck. If CCHQ was excited about Buck becoming the Labour leader’s PPS, then Tory MPs were just as energised today by Hunt’s presence on the frontbench at departmental question time.
Andrew Rosindell asked a question about the history curriculum. As Michael Gove came to the end of his answer and Rosindell rose to ask his supplementary question, Tory backbencher David Ruffley started to shout ‘come on, Tristram!’ He repeated his heckling, wiggling his hands in a ‘stand-up-for-yourself’ gesture. Hunt, naturally, didn’t respond, and Liz Truss later quipped that it was a shame the House hadn’t heard Hunt’s view on the history curriculum.
Why the fuss? Well, Hunt is a renowned historian, but he’s also on the Blairite wing of the party (as is his boss Stephen Twigg), and Tory MPs think he’ll bring what they cheerily describe as ‘debate’ to the Labour team. That ‘debate’ might include his support for the Education Secretary’s plans for history. In March, he wrote a piece for The Times which said the proposals were flawed but important:
‘What is more, he is right to put British history at the forefront of teaching. The extraordinarily aggressive response by teachers and professionals to the Gove plans misreads history’s place in the education system.’
Hunt has criticised Gove’s approach to the subject before. In 2011 he argued that ministers ‘need to stop interfering; headteachers need to be braver about league tables and the type of education they are offering': in other words, he thinks teachers should be trusted to teach history well. He praised academies in particular, which do not have to follow the national curriculum.
This is of course the great irony of Gove’s curriculum reforms. He is particularly passionate about the history element – those who work with him say he carries the relevant documents around with him like a newborn baby, and that prising them from him requires quite some skill – yet it will not apply to the models of school that he loves best.
Other Tory MPs think Hunt’s belief that free schools are a ‘vanity project for yummy mummies in West London’ will cause tensions in the party just as Stephen Twigg appears to be formalising some sort of role for these schools by giving local authorities some oversight of them. Education questions, which is always a lively affair, might be about to get even more interesting.