Tristram Hunt’s Speech to the ASCL Conference – More Looking Back to Move Forwards

In a week in which we listened to a lecture from Tony Little, headmaster of Eton College, entitled “Looking Back to Move Forwards”, it was interesting that Tristram Hunt chose to include a quote from the first Labour Party Minister of Education, Ellen Wilkinson, in his speech to the ASCL Conference.

How far have we have progressed?

Ellen Wilkinson’s quote is as relevant today as it was when she said it – immediately following the Second World War. We wonder when these aspirations will become a reality for all children and teachers in the 21st century:

Ellen Wilkinson

Tristram Hunt’s speech, however, was optimistic and upbeat – using this quote as a vision and expectation for the future of education.

As Tristram said of this quote,

“It spoke to me because it just seemed so unencumbered, so passionate, so enthralled to the beauty and the business of education. It just seemed to get, more than anything else I read, how this is first and foremost about freedom.”

Could Mr Hunt be the first Secretary of State for Education in decades to give proper and appropriate autonomy to the teaching profession and educators?

Click here for the full transcript of his speech.

Below are some quotes from the speech with a commentary from 3Di.



“My argument today is very simple: we must transform. And we must trust. Because a powerful convergence of social, economic and technological forces are creating huge challenges for our future prosperity that education can no longer ignore.”  Trust and transformation are fully loaded words, and ones that we embrace. For too long now, the professionalism of teachers hasn’t been trusted. That has stymied and stifled transformation. Technological, social, economic and neurological developments are opening new worlds that completely alter the way we live and learn – and our understanding of how we learn. Meanwhile, back in the land of schooling, we are lodged in a ‘Goveian’ system that insists on examining knowledge, all too frequently ignoring the many who have important attributes, intelligences and abilities other than academic brilliance. The educational focus must be equalised and balanced out.
“To my mind, the energy provided by the digital revolution makes this one of the most exciting times to be involved in English education for decades – an unmistakable and incredible sense of possibility, social entrepreneurship and potential……….young people who are bursting with ideas about how they contribute and make a difference……….For this truly is the wonderful thing about the digital revolution. It democratises power. It stimulates innovation…….weakens bureaucratic control and provides new platforms for articulating an alternative.”  At 3Di, we’re very keen on technology and the learning opportunities it affords.
Tristram Hunt mentioned the democratisation of education through social media, citing examples such as the establishment of the “Headteachers’ Roundtable” as a force for innovative change. He talked of the ability to learn about pedagogy and the new pedagogies available due to technology.He’s right. We have many young people who are “bursting with ideas” and we need to truly embrace the digital revolution to empower them with their learning.
“It is very simple: Britain can only succeed when our young people succeed. Which means education must also serve as a strategy for national economic renewal . . . that our country’s future prosperity depends on unlocking our education system’s hidden potential. It is that force which I would suggest drives our system’s ‘high stakes’ nature. And it is not an inconsiderable concern.”   There’s a general election looming and it’s disturbing that education is no longer seen as a political priority, particularly when you consider what Tristram says here. Our future is with our children. If we fail them, our society fails too. What could be more important?‘High stakes’ are a considerable concern to Mr Hunt and so they should be. He’s placed his finger on the pulse. High stakes exams are driven by the disputed notion that success in them is all young people need to be successful in life. This view is strongly contested by progressive educators and friends in unexpected places, like the CBI.There’s another issue though, and Tristram fell short of following through on this. The pressure on schools to attain will remain as long as performance league tables exist, irrespective of the economic driving force. The only way to achieve the desired balance between school innovation and school improvement is to remove these tables and value the creative and unquantifiable aspects of learning.


The days of education by diktat must come to an end. More than ever before change in education must come from the bottom-up. Through decentralisation. Through devolving power. Through giving teachers and school leaders the freedom to deliver the exciting education that awakens a passion for life and learning within our children.”“If you believe there is something wrong with the system – develop the better alternative.”  Whilst we object to the implication that schools are “bottom” and national government is “top”, we applaud Tristram’s sentiment here. We just need to use more egalitarian language!Education will only change when trust is placed on the professionalism of those working in education, to transform and reinvent education from within. Decentralisation doesn’t equate to a lack of scrutiny and accountability. The profession doesn’t need government to dictate literacy and numeracy targets. They’re in the blood of most teachers, as is the opportunity and potential to “deliver the exciting education that awakens a passion for life and learning”.There really is an alternative, and it’s so promising to hear Tristram Hunt acknowledge that.
“We will see schools where every lesson can be simultaneously tailored to the needs of each individual pupil . . .”  This will happen, irrespective of some peoples’ insistence to the contrary. Personalised learning is challenging, extremely so, but not impossible. Technology makes individualised learning feasible but it also enhances not detracts from the role of the teacher. The prospect of working in a class full of children and young people learning about things that interest them, driven, guided, facilitated and challenged by a competent teacher – refreshed by the freedom to teach – is an exciting one and not ludicrously aspirational.
“But given the high and increasing price of failure – reimagining our industrial model of education could represent the only way we can secure our children’s prosperity. Therefore, if we want to become a world class economy that uses the talents of all, then we have to give school innovation equal status alongside school improvement.  Presumably, Mr Hunt has watched the most viewed TEDTalk in history – Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms”.We think  everyone should watch this at least once a term to remind themselves of the purposes of education and how we moved on from the Industrial Revolution more than a century ago – but stuck with its educational programme.Innovation, creativity, freedom go hand in hand with “school improvement” – when they’re allowed to do so.

Tristram plus quote

“The existing model of school improvement in this country is creaking at the seams……as John Cridland, Director General of the CBI, puts it bluntly: “At the moment we have a system almost exclusively focused on exam results and a floor standard which allows up to 40 per cent of a school’s pupils to fail.”……. heads are doing great work despite the system, rather than because of it.”  How can it be right to have a system with such a high percentage of so-called ‘failure’ being socially and ethically acceptable?It’s just plain wrong.The CBI has made it clear that its members are increasingly concerned about the lack of core competencies and life skills gained by school leavers. The creaking system of school improvement prioritises ‘standards’ at the expense of the learning that the CBI says is required – for individuals and economic stability.

Our system of education DOES need fixing, and whilst we appreciate Tristram Hunt’s concern about even more change in education, and his erring on the side of stability, the status quo, is NOT sustainable, is NOT equitable and isn’t really a viable option.

“Poverty of ambition is every bit as damaging as poverty of circumstance.”  Ambition doesn’t equate to attainment. This has been one of the most misplaced interpretations of ambition as far as our education system is concerned.If everyone achieves the essential 5 A-Cs at GCSE, what then? Once the ‘average standards’ have been achieved, what is it that’s going to set young people apart from one another? Perhaps their ability to be creative, to innovate, to learn how to collaborate – none of which are an inherent part of the “standards agenda”. The fact that our system hasn’t encouraged this type of learning is the real poverty of ambition.Even people within the Labour Party have realised that New Labour’s policy on increasing the number of people attending university was deeply flawed.Perhaps we can reconsider what our ambition is and use that to influence the aims of education.
We need to reclaim our higher aspirations; to reconnect ourselves with what education is and should be about; to respect and cherish the true purpose of schooling . . . making sure every child learns something new and exciting every day . . . creating beautiful pieces of work and acquiring an insatiable thirst for knowledge . . . nurturing those broader human attributes – the character, resilience, confidence, grit and emotional wellbeing. Because the idea that our children’s potential can be fulfilled if we just raise the targets, stamp our feet and demand one more heave, is now, surely, approaching its end stages. What we also need, Mr Hunt, is to use these inspiring and honest words and place them in an election manifesto for education.You said it. Our children and young people’s potential won’t be fulfilled by exam passes alone. Their commitment to life-long learning, inspired through innovative, exciting and challenging learning opportunities within their schooling certainly might.A refusal to further raise targets isn’t a poverty of ambition. Introducing broader educational aspirations is ambitious and exciting.

ASCL Blueprint

“So we simply have to change; To chart a course away – carefully, slowly, consensually – from the narrow, ‘exam factory’ vision of recent years. As the Blueprint points out via that wonderful Joel Klein quote: “You can mandate adequacy. You cannot mandate greatness. It has to be unleashed.” And change comes from within.Again, we understand Tristram Hunt’s reluctance to impose more change on the profession but the status quo is intolerable for so many of our children. Slow, deliberate thought is needed to unleash greatness for all.
“So this is a chance to revisit some of the fundamentals of the industrial model of schooling, recasting them anew for the internet age. Embrace new pedagogies. Experiment with new curricula.”  As Tristram Hunt says, government has a role to facilitate change but the change should come from within. Insight from historical errors are important too – something that Mr Hunt evidently acknowledges.
“Ultimately the main energy for radical, system-wide school innovation must come from within; we also need to provide a far better national architecture for ongoing training and development. So we will create a new, dedicated school leadership institute.” The commitment to a School Leadership Institute as well as a College of Learning sounds promising, on the condition that it’s led by educators and not politicians, and not those whose sole intention is to make a fast buck either.


Labour election manifesto

“So an incoming Labour Government would end the existing free schools programme……We can extend academy freedoms to all schools – which we will……….We can begin to devolve important powers over professional standards, quality assurance, curriculum development and peer review to profession-led bodies – and we will…………We can put an end to the endless tinkering with accountability, performance measures, curriculum, assessment criteria – which we will.”  So here is what a Labour government would do.As we said earlier, any new government has to address the issue of accountability. Performance league tables hinder innovation. They’re divisive and an absolute obstacle to the one thing that is readily acknowledged as being a key component to improvement and learning – collaboration between schools and between professionals.The constraining of learning will continue as long as performance tables remain and as long as Ofsted remains as a force of control rather than a collaborator.
“As someone who has had the privilege to educate young people, I fully understand its liberating power. I understand that it is about skills and understanding . . . About gaining a cultural inheritance . . . About training one’s mind  . . . About creativity, socialisation and enjoyment . . . About academic and emotional capacity . . . About character, happiness, wellbeing and resilience. But most of all that it is about freedom . . . Granting young people the freedom and power to shape their own lives.  We’re delighted that Tristram Hunt has chosen to stop using the term “soft skills”. Emotional capacity and literacy, socialisation (using social intelligence), understanding about personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of others – are far from being soft or easy. These are hard – for adults and young people alike.And they are an integral part of learning and schooling – which is why we advocate a firm commitment from the Labour Party on the statutory status of PSHE that goes beyond a mere curriculum ‘subject’.We need to hear that the “gaining” and “training” that Tristram talks about is an inherent part of education – both formally and informally, and it’s essential for schools to nurture and enable personal and social development as well as academic achievement.

We’re invigorated by the passion and the enthusiasm for necessary change that shone through this speech.

We do need to “Look Back to Move Forwards” – to assess mistakes and to create a system of education that’s fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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