The Comprehensive Future group works for a “comprehensive secondary school system with fair admissions to all publicly funded schools and an end to selection by ability and aptitude”. So it was a matter of some interest that Tristram Hunt agreed to talk to its members about Labour’s vision for education at a meeting held in Portcullis House, Westminster on 25th November.
It was a short talk (10 minutes) in which Tristram Hunt said that he would outline what Labour wanted to achieve regarding education when in government. Labour, he said, has “three areas of focus”. The first area is early years: “If you are going to battle disadvantage … you have to focus on the early years.” He said that Labour had achieved much in government with Sure Start and Children’s Centres. A new Labour government would face difficulties “in terms of the austerity that we will confront, but we also know that we have to have resources and focus there”. Labour will focus on Sure Start and on the quality of the personnel working in this area including the involvement of more graduates and teachers. Working parents of 3-4 year-olds would be helped by 25 hours a week of free child care and by wrap-around care by schools from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm.
School support staff would have a statutory negotiating body for their pay and conditions.
The second area of focus will be teaching quality and cooperation between schools. The core of Labour’s schools policy starts from the quality of teachers as the most important variable for pupil outcomes. Labour would move away from “relentless structural reform” towards a less hierarchical vision of school structure with a “value-neutral approach” to different structures. In addition to working for a fully qualified teaching force there would be a “profession-led process of continual improvement and engagement”. Unfortunately, he gave no detail on this potentially interesting idea. We need to reach a point where it is the norm for teachers to want to know more about their subjects and about pedagogy and where they have the resources to do so. Again, no details were provided.
Labour wants to see schools working together. Tax relief will only be given to private schools if they partner and work with state schools. All school types and systems must work together. All this would be coordinated by Labour’s proposed Directors of School Standards who would also be in charge of commissioning new school places. In saying this Tristram Hunt removed the ambiguity from Labour policy document Education and Children which seems to suggest that the commissioning would be a joint responsibility of local authorities and DSSs. Local authorities, he said, would once again be allowed to open new schools by bidding for the right to do so “alongside other providers”.
The third focus will be vocational and technical education. About 70,000 highly skilled jobs become available each year of which we can only provide suitable candidates for 40,000. There is a growing skills gap. Labour will reform vocational education and will ensure continued study of English and maths alongside technical studies. In addition it would revive good quality careers guidance in schools and work experience.
All this, Tristram Hunt said, would be a “radical, progressive, interventionist programme for our educational system”. It would not be “year zero”, it would not “throw everything up in the air again”. Rather, he said, “It is working with what we inherit and beginning to think how we change in the direction that reflects our values and the needs of Britain”.
Would Labour end selection at eleven? Over half an our of discussion followed this presentation. The first question put to him was whether he supported selection of school intake on the basis of aptitude. So as not to leave the least doubt about his answer you can listen to it for yourself. The last voice in the clip is that of John Edmonds who chaired the meeting.
Here is a transcript of the main parts of this audio file in case you prefer reading to listening. The hesitations of speech (ums and uhs) have been edited out for readability.
Q (Katy Simmonds). Do you support schools selecting their intake on the basis of aptitude or ability?
A (Tristram Hunt). So I’ve met with colleagues from the Buckinghamshire Labour Party, and the Kent Labour Party and the the position of the Labour Party is that we, we will not be removing the status, or abolishing the existing grammar schools. That is a long-standing position and also, having met with the grammar school heads association I think that we also have to be clear that yes, grammar schools are selective but when you look at the top 100 selective schools in terms of free school means and all the rest of it, grammar schools are about 17 of of them relative to other forms of selection. So we have to be sort of careful about some of the the processes behind this. You know, I gave them, you know, the wonderful Fionna McTaggart gave me the statistics on kids with free school meals in the slough grammars versus kids on free school meals in the Slough comprehensives and the statistics are startling and shocking and, you know, we had a discussion about that. I think there’s broader issue here about the admission system, and admission system seems to me increasingly knackered and unreliable and I think we, we need to step back and think more coherently about the totality of the admissions system under a schools landscape and that’s a bigger piece of work that we need to look to but we, we will not be going into the election saying saying that we will be ending the grammar schools.