At last – Labour has made its intentions over education clear. Throughout his interview on the Sunday Politics today, Tristram Hunt showed that Labour has switched allegiances to adults, not the pupils. On the side of institutions, not those who use them.
Although the shadow education secretary stated he ‘doesn’t want to waste political energy on undoing reforms that, in certain situations, build rather successfully on Labour party policy’, he confirmed his party would not sanction any more free schools:
‘I was in Stroud on Thursday and plans there for a big new style of school in an area where you’ve got surplus places threatened to destroy the viability of small local rural schools. We want schools to work together in a network of partnership instead of this destructive market-driven approach’
Hunt reiterated that
free schools parent-led academies should only open in areas where there are no places to fill in unpopular schools. Therefore, no more choice in education for such parents. This is an important principle: to John Reid, socialism meant rejecting the idea that only the rich should have choice in education. The Blair choice agenda was seen – rightly – as social justice. Ed Miliband seems not so bothered about this, more persuaded by the teachers unions who prefer schools to choose pupils, not vice versa. Hunt (whose own parents sent him private) seems to think it unimportant that every pupil, rich or poor, should have choice.
Labour’s policy on free schools defies the very purpose of them — it removes the competition incentive for bad schools to improve. Pupils would be left to rot in bad schools with no option to go anywhere else. He repeated the old trope that his policy would be for existing bad schools to improve. But as the educational decay in Stoke (his political backyard) shows, that can be difficult. Seven schools in Stoke are currently rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, all of them council-run.
Yet when pushed with the words of Tony Blair (above), on allowing parents to open up schools if they feel existing provision is inadequate, Hunt disowned this New Labour rationale. In effect, he said that such choice is now unaffordable:
‘We live in very difficult economic circumstances, where we have to focus on public finances on the areas of absolute need. We need 250,000 new school places, 150,000 in London alone. We have to focus on building new schools where we have to put them’
Hunt has also threatened to remove teachers from classrooms who are working in academies and free schools without Qualified Teaching Status — despite being educated by unqualified teachers himself:
‘We would want unqualified teachers to gain Qualified Teacher Status. If they are not interested in improving their skills and improving their knowledge then I don’t think they should be in the classroom.’
Hunt was keen to use Al-Medhinah Free School as an example of why all teachers need QTS — despite two-thirds of the teachers at the school being qualified. When it was put to Hunt that the problem with the Al-Medhinah was not unqualified teachers, Hunt instantly bounced back ‘yes it was’.
With 14 months to the general election, Labour has shown that while, to the naked eye, they may appear to be agreeing with much of Michael Gove’s reforms, it’s the same old statism. Hunt, who is the most able shadow education secretary since the last election, is happy to take credit for inventing sponsored academies and TeachFirst, yet is picking some of the most successful parts of Michael Gove’s reforms to stand against. Voters might want something more consistent than that.