The Compass Education Conference morning session concluded with a conversation between the Chair of the Advisory Council, Dame Jane Roberts, and the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt.
The conversation between Jane and Tristram began with the same question that was considered in the previous session: What would you tell your teenage self about education?
Mr Hunt’s response was that he wished he’d pursued the study of languages and he wished he’d been more able to be enthusiastic about his education prior to studying A-Levels. He said that post 16 he’d found “space to stretch yourself beyond the narrow parameters”.
Asked about the purpose of education, he responded that it meant different things for different people. He said that education was about establishing skills and knowledge for reading, writing and maths, but it was also about the development of confidence, about cultural inheritance, and about the ability to form and to maintain friendships. He raised his concerns that for some children and young people our educational focus is too utilitarian – with an emphasis on future employment rather than enjoyment of learning.
According to Mr Hunt, the priorities for a new Labour government in 2015 will be threefold.
- Free child-care and wrap around provision
- Ensuring education is relevant for the “forgotten 50%”
- Teacher quality
In the ensuing conversation, Tristram made the following additional comments about education today.
- Current systems for technical and vocational education are chaotic, with pathways that are difficult to navigate – exacerbated by the dismantling of Careers Advice
- Academic knowledge is vital but so too are “softer skills” and the need to provide space for other attributes to develop (NB: we questioned him on the use of the expression “soft skills” – more on this in a subsequent post)
- Youth Services, battered by the Coalition cuts, needs to play an integral role in education
- Further Education institutions need to focus on local needs and employability when considering the courses they offer
- Young people should know the value of what they’re studying
- Middle tier (local authority) governance is being reviewed by David Blunkett and Labour policy will be determined by this report
- The success of initiatives like “London Challenge” should be reviewed with the potential for sub-regional support (or groups of LAs working collaboratively)
- A new relationship with data – tracking is important but the “Left” also have to overcome their opposition to data. (It must be noted here that the opposition to data is more frequently opposition to how that data is used. The “Left” don’t have any problem whatsoever with tracking pupil progress to enable them to reach their highest potential)
- More focus on systematic professional development
- Licensing of teachers – something that has been in the news recently
- Review of what we are judging in schools and why we are judging specific things (His comment that Ofsted and Sir Michael Wilshaw are doing a good job, particularly with highlighting under achievement in our coastal regions, was met with considerable derision – more on this later too)
There was then an open question time and an opportunity to raise and air concerns/ideas with the Shadow Secretary of State.
Below is a paraphrasing of questions asked and the responses to them from Tristram Hunt
Q: Educational terminology and language is important. Words like “standards”, “autonomy” and “assessment” have been hijacked by the right and this needs to be addressed. Isn’t using phrases like “soft skills” wrong when the key skills and capacities of communication, collaboration, innovation and empathy are so integral to human development and indeed, according to the CBI, employability?
A: There was an acknowledgement that Tristram would welcome some dialogue on the use of language and how it can be re-evaluated to reflect the values espoused by Labour and the Left.
Q: Teachers have been bashed and bombarded for decades. There’s a “macho” tendency when politicians talk about education. How do you prevent this from happening again?
A: Agreement that the profession has been bombarded, and promises to avoid being macho!
Q: Concern about the narrowing of offers from Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) and the use of Schools Direct and Teach First – narrowing the training provided to trainee teachers.
A: A review of HEIs would be considered within the key aim of a better quality of teaching/teachers.
Q: How do we engage young peoples’ voice at a national as well as local/schools level?
A: Tristram said that he was open to ideas as to how this can happen and wanted to move away from the ballot-style pupil voice as the only intervention from young people.
Q: We should value our teachers. How can we deal with the problem of the supply of teachers and their terms and conditions?
A: The system of teacher provision is currently chaotic and needs to be considered but no immediate answer to this could be given today.
Q: Contract-based schooling was introduced by New Labour. Are we going to be brave enough to confront or retreat from that?
A: The Labour Party would review the success of sponsored academies, i.e. those that became academies under the previous Labour government, and the growth of them under the Coalition. Decisions would be made from the evidence.
Q: We need enthusiastic teachers. The imposed curriculum and increasing formalisation of schemes of work intrudes upon professional/pupil relationships and reduces creativity. Can you do something about this?
A: There is a balance between autonomy and oversight. Also, on the one hand people don’t want more change and on the other ask for change because the curriculum is wrong. Labour won’t commit to a “relentless structural” review of the curriculum. Changes will be based on evidence.
Q: There is scepticism and concern about how data is used. E.g. segregated data for ethnicity in some places is encouraging segregated teaching and learning.
A: It is good to identify which groups of children need support. The problem is not the data itself but how that data is used. (We will comment on this further in a subsequent post)
Q: Without structural reform, Labour is operating under a Tory agenda.
Q: The Gove national curriculum is weak. Isn’t there an urgent need to review the curriculum again?
A: (to both of the previous questions) The priority is not systematic or curriculum change – it has to be about teacher quality, and there isn’t enough political space to address the other issues as a priority. Tristram said it was vital that conversations continue between the teaching unions and government/politicians.
Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT summarised and concluded the discussion by reiterating that “Education is a right, not a privilege” and that high consideration ought to be given to equality and equity within education.
Her main points in response to Tristram’s comments were as follows:
- OECD reports that fragmented systems aren’t successful. This applies directly to education in this country today.
- REAL school local autonomy is needed
- School leadership is not just about head teachers. Everyone has a role in leading learning, including pupils themselves
- Quoting Pasi Sahlberg from Finland (the last Chief Inspector in the country where there are now no inspections) – says the focus should be on responsibility not accountability. This key issue needs to be considered so that there is a better balance.
- Trust is needed in the teaching professional’s ability to make formative assessments. If everything is evidenced by data, you expect everything to be data focused. Some integral parts of education can’t be quantitative, and is therefore seen as less relevant.
- We need to have democratic accountability and life chances for children enhanced
- Most importantly, we want laughter, fun and enjoyment back in the classroom.
At the best of times, being a “shadow” opposition leader can be tricky. At the worst of times, it’s even more difficult. Educationally, we are arguably in the “worst of times” – Hard Times.
Gove has introduced radical changes to the curriculum, to systems of governance, to teachers’ “standards”, to accountability measures, to the examination process whilst simultaneously giving the incumbent Secretary of State for Education over fifty additional new powers of intervention. The ultimate decision making process for education is a long way from the local and school based autonomy that he professes to exist, and is firmly embedded in central government.
These changes are vast but they’re not insurmountable. On the contrary, dealing with, and in some cases reversing, these changes is of paramount importance if we want to have an education system that is both fit for the purposes of the 21st century and upholds the values of a Good Society.
Tristram Hunt is in the unenviable position of potentially having to deal with the aftermath of Gove’s radicalism after the next election. His time, and parliamentary time, is limited. That’s a problem. So too is the balance between introducing yet more change to education with the impossibility of having an equal and just system of education with the Govian modifications still intact.
We will make further comments about this account in a future post.