Three areas of focus – Tristram Hunt talks to Comprehensive Future

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ComprehensiveFutureThe 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.


  1. John Bolt, commenting yesterday on Hunt’s talk on his Education for Everyone blog, asked ‘What’s happened to the Blunkett Review – and what should happen next?’ I want to offer a different view to John’s but since the comments facility for his article is turned off I’ll respond here.

    John is right to say that Hunt’s proposals in Education and Children are ‘not a great deal clearer that the hopeless muddle that we have at the moment’. But he is wrong to reject returning all schools to maintained status and wrong not to reject the proposal for local Directors of School Standards.

    John says ‘one solution of course would be to return all schools to maintained status… But we know this will not happen. The legal complexities would be huge as would be the organisational upheaval and there is clearly no political appetite for this kind of change.’

    It is not the case that there are legal obstacles. According to David Wolfe, the expert on the law regarding academies, ‘we have already seen funding agreements being overridden by legislation: in relation to permanent exclusions and SEN. In each of those instances, whatever the funding agreement says no longer applies.’ ( As secretary of state Tristram Hunt could simply use the existing statutory powers to remove the control of academies by sponsors, including the removal of the right of sponsors to appoint governors. The latter is surely required by John’s call for ‘A common set of regulations [which] applies to all schools.’

    One consequence of the legislation would be the recovering of the ownership of school premises from the sponsoring academy trust. Again this is entailed in John’s proposal – which is in the Blunkett Review but omitted from Education and Children – for ‘Schools free to … leave any trust’, which would also require legislation to override the funding agreement.

    So the explanation for why ‘this will not happen’ is straightforwardly ‘there is clearly no political appetite’ on the part of the Labour leadership, but that is a reason to step up the campaign for a unified local authority school system, not a reason to concede the argument six months before the general election.

    The corollary of the acceptance of the continuing fragmentation of local schools systems because of academies and free schools remaining separate from local authority schools is the acceptance of Directors of School Standards. John makes some proposals for the role and powers of the DSS in the interest of ‘tidy accountability’, but in my view they don’t resolve the problem of power, for two reasons. First, it is the DSS, unelected, not the elected local authority, who would, in John’s words, ‘Control the resources needed to undertake these roles’. In reality the DSS would be the local arm of the DfE, a colonial administrator over local authorities, not dissimilar from the Coalition’s Regional Schools Commissioners.

    Second, the DSS’s powers would ‘be exercised with the agreement of the Local Education Panel.’ Now I think the idea of a Local Education Panel is a good one. If it were expanded to include representatives of all local stakeholders it would be close to my conception of a Local Education Forum. The problem is that though it was proposed in the Blunkett Review it doesn’t appear at all in Education and Children. Clearly it’s a democratic reform for which the Labour leadership has no political appetite, in spite of their claims in Education and Children that ‘Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their area’ (p78).

    All of the DSS’s functions could be carried out by reformed, properly resourced and democratised local authorities, with oversight by an independent HMI as appropriate. External support including from government may be needed for a transitional period to enable local authorities to get back on their feet, but this is not to be confused with the permanent structural division of powers between local authorities and DSSs which Labour proposes.

    Editorial Note. The problem within commenting on the Education for Everyone blog has been resolved so this discussion can continue there.


  2. Coming late to this :

    So sad. Once again we are in the position that the main opposition party has no real alternative to the present mish-mash, and the Shadow Secretary of State flounders, clearly out of his depth in a sea of illogicality. Is this the rallying cry as a general election approaches : “Well, it’s a bit better than the other lot”?

    The refusal to grasp the nettle of overall structure simply leaves an incoherent mess in place. Labour and Conservative policies are identical in their underlying distaste for local supervision, and are equally complicit in creating the undemocratic fragmentation that only those within the incestuous Westminster ‘think-tank’ (‘tank’ as a verb, used in the sense of ‘crash’ or ‘fail’) regard as an acceptable state of affairs. In general, it seems that any attempt to reverse any of the assaults on public assets is deemed ‘too difficult’.

    Taking some of the specific points of Hunt’s comments :

    1. “if you are going to battle disadvantage … you have to focus on the early years.”

    Yes – that will help, but the most important prior role of central government is to tackle the underlying economic drivers of deprivation and exclusion. Without that, the rest is sticking plaster.

    2. “Labour wants to see schools working together.”

    Motherhood and sliced bread when the main agency for promoting this objective – the LEA – has been removed from the scene.

    3. “The third focus will be vocational and technical education.”

    What exactly does this reiteration of a milk-and-water objective actually mean? Once again, the underlying view seems to be that vocational and technical education can be reformed without considering the whole system of which it is a part. The very words imply that it is an afterthought, an annex.

    4. ” the the position of the Labour Party is that we, we will not be removing the status, or abolishing the existing grammar schools”.

    No change there, then. Translation : “We are too frit to tackle the blatant inequities inherent in the secondary modern systems. The evidence is too inconvenient a truth.”

    5. ” we need to step back and think more coherently about the totality of the admissions system under a schools landscape ”

    Well – that’s a revelation! But it won’t solve the problems of selective systems, and a really “coherent think” might throw up some more uncomfortable truths relating to the system as a whole.

    The term ‘inspired’ does not spring to mind; neither does ‘coherent’ or ‘thoughtful’.


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