Monday 8 June 2015

Tristram Hunt's article in the Guardian + my response re Reading for Pleasure

Tristram Hunt has an article in the Guardian about what Labour could or should have said about education in the run-up to the recent election. I've put a comment about reading for pleasure on the comments thread on the end. Both, in full are here:


“Dear Tristram”, began a recent email. “I’ve had to take my 10-year-old son out of school after his teacher left and was replaced with a teaching assistant for two days a week. After being told by the headteacher that he would be employing a replacement teacher, and several weeks of chaotic supply teachers, he instead put in place a teaching assistant two days a week without informing parents. When we challenged him, he said he could do what he liked because the school was now an academy.”

Sadly, this picture looks set to be repeated up and down England with another five years of Tory government. Expect more unqualified teachers, headteacher shortages, a growing attainment gap between children on free school meals and their better-off peers, chaotic curriculum reform, random academisation, the end to AS-levels, and poor children being denied a chance of university.

But the hard truth is that we in the Labour party lost the election and now every part of our programme needs to be rethought. Education has to be a part of that inquest, because we signally failed to use the potency of education policy – its focus on the future, its capacity to craft a different society, its centrality to wealth creation and work – to offer a compelling enough vision of a Labour Britain.

When it comes to politics and education, the public and pundits are in two minds. On the one hand, there was a general lament that education didn’t feature prominently enough in the election campaign; on the other, they didn’t want party politics involved in education. My view is that democratically elected politicians have a right to shape education policy, but not to double-guess the operational decisions of professionals. No Labour education secretary was going to ban To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sadly, Miliband allowed himself to be perceived as uninterested in schools policy

I also thought that the fundamentals of our education manifesto were correct. Our ambition was to move away from the relentless structural changes of recent years to focus on quality teaching, strong leadership and smaller class sizes. We wanted to end the “every school an island” approach and, instead, roll out the London Challenge system of school collaboration and partnership across the country – particularly in coastal areas and coalfield communities. We were committed to reforming Ofsted, protecting creative subjects, rebuilding careers guidance and ensuring high-quality vocational qualifications.

The public seemed to like it. According to the Daily Telegraph (hardly a committed Labour paper), the three top education priorities for parents during the election were a cap on class sizes in primary and secondary schools (41%), fully qualified teachers (34%) and an increase in the number of apprenticeships (33%).

Yet I would make two criticisms. As leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband was deeply committed to apprenticeships, vocational education and childcare support. Yet sadly, he allowed himself to be perceived as uninterested in schools policy. And in our increasingly presidential politics, the media refracts every issue through the party leader’s personal capital. This, coupled with sincere concerns about “initiative-itus” and teacher exhaustion, tempered our radicalism, allowing the Tories to seize far too much of the education mantle.

Second, we muddled our priorities with the tuition fees cut. There are strong economic arguments for investing in higher education and the current policy is loading massive debt upon the taxpayer. But poor children in Stoke-on-Trent start school two years behind their peers in leafier parts of the country. Eighty per cent of the GCSE attainment gap is present by age seven. If our main goal is eradicating educational inequality, then our investment priority must always be the early years.

As Labour licks its wounds and thinks about how best to represent the communities it serves, we have a three-part challenge in education. The first is the essential but frustrating business of opposition. If the Education and Adoption bill is anything to go by, the Tory vision for the 2020s remains firmly rooted in the late 1990s. So we will have still more focus on structures, standardised testing, Whitehall centralism and teacher de-professionalisation. They will combine this with a 10% cut to school budgets – which will see teachers sacked and options closed – while opening two free schools a week, whether needed or not.

We muddled our priorities with the tuition fees cut … our priority must be early years

And it is my kids, and your kids, who will suffer from this tedious, myopic and transactional schools policy. While even the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development, which runs the Pisa tables, and former Tory guru Steve Hilton, are urging creativity, innovation and less testing in schools, Nicky Morgan thinks the opposite.

Then there is the medium-term project of asking the difficult questions about the future direction of education policy outside the election cycle. Both the education select committee and aspiring Labour leader Liz Kendall have raised the issue of attainment among white working-class pupils and this needs to be pursued.

More thorny is the question of religion, ethnicity and school provision. When every mosque, temple, synagogue, church, chapel and gurdwara wants its own free school, what hope have we for a national education system that integrates rather than segregates? One of the many absurdities of Tory education policy is a school commissioning system that militates against cohesion, while demanding a unified sense of British values.

Right from the start the next leader needs to place education at the core of their project

We should also be brave in challenging some of the consensus areas of education policy. Is the distribution of pupil premium funds really fair to working parents just above the poverty line? Is the current school calendar, modelled on the traditional agricultural cycle, the best way to teach children? Why can’t we pay teachers more to work in particularly challenging classrooms? How can we reform a funding system that entrenches existing educational inequalities?

But most important is our vision of the future. Right from the start, the next leader of the Labour party has to place education at the core of their political project – it speaks to all the attributes of aspiration, the future and promise we need to own. For the Labour party that has to entail our founding ideal of tackling inequality and building a just society. So, a focus on strong families, loving parenting, emotional resilience, high-quality childcare and better nursery provision is crucial. It is investment in the early years that makes the difference – which is perhaps why the Tories have identified it as an area for particularly deep cuts.

I would then suggest a full-blooded commitment to building a proper 14-19 baccalaureate curriculum that delivers a rigorous common core for all learners, along academic or vocational pathways. With a rising participation age, increasing evidence of the early teens being a crucial point in young people’s learning, the narrowness of GCSEs and too much teaching to the test, it is a natural step.

Finally, technology. The digital economy is transforming the world of work and it needs to start reshaping the classroom. We have to embrace this and think about how innovation can re-energise our education system. Education must be our vehicle for a bigger story of Britain: how we use the extraordinary talent and creativity in our education system to build a competitive economy, how we ensure communities left behind by globalisation have the skills and confidence to thrive, and how we allow professional pride and moral mission to flourish in the English classroom.

Because, at the moment, a 10-year-old boy allocated a teaching assistant two days a week by a shoddy headteacher isn’t good enough for me.



You have the evidence in front of you Tristram that one of the key ways to affect the chances of children who would otherwise struggle is for schools to have the time, training and assistance, and trained, paid librarians to help all children get hold of the books, magazines and comics that they want to read. Not only do you have the evidence, you have the 2011 Ofsted (yes!) 'recommendation' that every school be asked to develop a policy on 'reading enjoyment for all'. There is an enthusiastic raft of charities, (Booktrust, National Literacy Trust, The Reading Agency, Volunteer Reading Help etc etc), there are at least 300 children's writers and illustrators, there is the National Association for Writers in Education, there is the School Libraries Association, the National Federation of Children's Book Groups, there is the NUT and the ATL - these are all people utterly committed to this. All that's missing is for government to join it all up, and harness this body of enthusiasm and commitment.

The priority here is for it to reach the children and families who would otherwise not have access to the books, and printed matter that the children themselves would want to read. Every piece of research that ever comes out about this, confirms how important this could be and yet no minister to date has ever made more than a token nod to it.

Why not? What's the threat? What's the problem with it? Why should 'reading for pleasure' be seen as some kind of 'thing on the side', or something inessential? Why isn't it an urgent priority?