A report on the recent Fabians event with Stephen Twigg and others.
By Henry Stewart, Local Schools Network
The coalition’s education policy is “extremist, ideological, backward-looking and incompetent”. That was the damning verdict from Shadow Minister Stephen Twigg at the debate on education at the Fabian Conference Saturday.
The title of the event was ‘Education after Gove’. “These are three words every teacher wants to hear”, suggested Chair Michael Shaw, Deputy Editor of TES, commenting that they had not seen this level of hostility to an Education minister, from their readership, since the 80s. (“Actually”, said the person next to me, “the three words I want to hear are ‘shark eats Gove’”.)
It is clear that the dominant model, in secondary schools at least, in 2015 will be academies and Labour is not about to change them back into maintained schools. We know, from this week’s RSA report (which Twigg indicated his full support for), that schools like academies are likely to “fuel social segregation” – though this is true of all schools that control their own admissions. Can we put the pieces back together to ensure a fair education system?
Fiona Millar, co-founder of the Local Schools Network, opened the discussion with a call for Labour to put all schools within the same regulatory framework. We may have to accept the many different types of schools but they all need to play by the same rules. Twigg was stronger and clearer on this than I’ve seen him before. “I completely agree with Fiona”, he said.
Twigg argued that it wasn’t about school structure, quoting the examples of Camden (which has no academies) and Hackney (where most secondaries are academies) as showing that different approaches suit different areas. However what both Camden and Hackney have in common is that the local authority controls admissions in all schools. I put this to Stephen after the event, suggesting that this was vital to ensure fair admissions, and he suggested that was the direction he was moving in.
Fiona laid out the dangers of the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC), the replacement for GCSEs due for introduction in 2015, as set out in the government’s consultation paper. The sole measure will be three hour essay-based exams in the core academic subjects and those who do not pass will leave with just a Statement of Achievement, “worse than the old CSEs”.
“I see no merit at all in the EBC” stated Twigg, though he oddly added that he had not yet decided whether to abolish it. I hope this simply indicates that they haven’t yet had the vote on it, rather than suggesting he totally opposed it but wasn’t sure whether to get rid of the EBC.
Some of his ideas had mixed responses. He advocated the establishment of a Royal College of Teachers, as suggested in the RSA report, “to raise respect and morale for the profession”. Many, especially on Twitter, were unsure whether another body was needed. Others challenged the idea of a Technical Baccalaureate, to run alongside any academic one. While welcoming the genuine focus on the other 50% (those who aren’t going to go to University), about which Gove has showed so little interest, but questioned whether segregation at 16 was any better than at 11.
But this was a politician who spoke the language of education. He talked about his involvement in the London Challenge, probably the most successful school improvement programme of the last few decades. He explained that success was down to partnership, respect for teachers and schools working rather than centrally imposed solutions.
Many have been disappointed by the lack of opposition to Gove’s policies. The claim of improved performance for academies has gone unchallenged even though it is not backed up by the data. The National Audit Office found an overspend of £1 billion on converting schools to academies, and yet – after all that cost – results in those schools have gone down.
But there was hope in Twigg’s performance, that we might (in his colleague Lisa Nandy’s words) see Labour “put the child back at the heart of our education policy”. There was genuine passion and belief. If we can see more of Twigg in this style, then perhaps Labour can become an effective opposition on education.