When I heard that Stephen Twigg had given a speech outlining his vision for Her Majesty's Opposition educational policies, my first thought was HOLY COW HAS HE RUN OUT OF ANGRY BIRDS LEVELS TO PLAY? Twigg has struggled to shake off accusations of absurd levels of obscurity in his post, some of it probably justified. True, few ministers in waiting would have chosen a nemesis who occupies their brief with such complete assurance as Michael Gove, and you could almost forgive some degree of hesitation to engage. But Gove's missionary zeal also presents an opposition with a target as wide as a school gate; one thing the Grand Dame of Sanctuary House isn't, is nebulous. His surname is too phonetically Gaelic to easily sound a mononymous ideology, but if it was, Goveism could be so easily outlined that it would visible from the Moon. Wide goalposts invite opportunistic strikers.
But so far, not a peep. Jack the Portillo Slayer has dismayed many by sitting on his laurels so comfortably and so long that vines have apparently taken root in his caecum. Worse still, his natural allies in the left, labour and the merely unhappy, even they felt the lack. A few months ago, people on Twitter started to float a hashtag that would bring a clamour to the heart of anyone in public office: #gotwigggo. Go Twigg, go it said; from another angle: Go,Twigg. Just go. The insinuation was clear: get your boots on and do something. It's damn hard when even your constituency is saying, 'Please...please do something.'
And now he's done something. I've criticised Call-Me-Nemo for his anonymity before. I like more than half of what Gove's done, but you'd have to subscribe to Zanu-PF to applaud the lack of scrutiny that the Minister for Magic has enjoyed. While Gove has been playing Mr Fantastic, building rockets and inventing a revolution, Twigg's been the Invisible Girl.
Well FLAME ON. So what's his vision?
It starts with a broad appeal, as most political sermons do, to lifelong passion for the subject, in the manner of a first draft personal statement. It quickly gets the human interest pupil-on-parade out of the way. Education, it seems is about providing social justice to everyone, to dissolving the impediments of accident and class, and carving passageways between privilege and privation. And few would dispute that.
'My journey in education, from Southgate Comprehensive school to Oxford University is one that is all too often the preserve of a narrow few. It remains the case that social background is the biggest determinant of people’s life chances in this country.'
But not for the speaker, clearly. It's odd to assert the dominance of economic determinism while simultaneously personifying an invalidation of that dominance. He's clearly right, of course, to say that poverty creates a gravity from which it is hard to achieve escape velocity. When you're rich, they call you a winner.
We're then told that social justice gets him out of bed in the morning, as opposed to the customary alarm clock. There is mention of equal opportunities for all, irrespective of circumstance. He then goes on to outline his Threefold Path.
- Freedoms for academies and Free Schools to be extended to all maintained schools.
- Devolution of school control from a Whitehall model to a local level.
- Schools to work together in networks, collaborating and supporting each other.
Before he goes back to these, he has a bang at Gove, accusing him of 'talking down' teachers and schools. This is one of those tired saws that many people believe, but for which little evidence exists. There is an abyss of difference between criticising things within education, and attacking education, and all those who practise it. This personification of profession is childish, and usually a sign that people are struggling to find an argument. Saying that things need to change, and being outspoken about it, is a sign of a healthy community, and yet some people treat him like Scientologists treat members who try to bail. I've argued that many things are wrong in education for some years, and I've never been accused of hating myself, or those with whom I work. And unless you limit your comments about education to the most anodyne, then you're going to have to speak bluntly to speak your mind. Until things are perfect, we say what we damn well please. Twigg has seized on this populist straw, but it should be beneath him.
Comparisons are odious
There then follows a Dungeons and Dragons metaphor so awful that even I wouldn't have considered it, Christ. One odd criticism he makes is to accuse Gove of taking away freedoms. Odd, because, while the LEAs are melting like the Wicked Witch of the West, and Whitehall is assuming many of their functions, as well as that of the GTC, academies are enjoying enormously increased liberties over curriculum, budgets, timetables and schedules that LEAs would previously have sat on like eggs. I'd argue that terrifying levels of freedom have been created, not more privation. Polar, political bun fights wither my sap, but does anyone remember the Blair years? National Curriculum continued, directives coming out of the wazoo, and best practice upheld by high stakes, one dimensional accountability measures like Ofsted. Ah, good times.
He's bang on the money when he disparages easy international comparisons, of course. Cloning overseas models of education makes as much sense as noticing that divorce rates in Saudi Arabia are low, so deciding we should import stoning as a punishment for adultery. Finland and Singapore are wheeled out so often, they should arrest the Minister for pimping. Oddly enough, Twigg undercuts himself a few paragraphs later by invoking Shanghai's 2009 PISA stats (God save us from PISA), but the point is apposite.
So, the meat is: academy freedoms, but LEA control. He's commissioned David Blunkett to look into the relationship between central government, local authorities and schools, and we're all clutching ourselves in excitement to see whether he says that schools should be run centrally, or by LEAs. Actually, you might want to let that breath out.
Interestingly he'll have saddened those who were hoping for a u-turn on Free Schools: he name checks Peter Hyman's Groovy School as an example of what a good Free School can be like (Hyman being Tony Blair's speech writer in a previous incarnation. Fancy that). School 21 opened in 2012, and has a reception year and a year 7. I wish it every success, but it's early days yet to assess just how groovy it really is.
So existing Free Schools will be allowed to live, but there'll be no more new ones if Labour get into Downing Street, a possibility that has already discouraged many of the international chains from investing very heavily in the UK. Why spend money on a project that won't have support in a few years? Toby Young, leading a conference for would-be Free School start-ups today at his West London manor, must have popped the cork on something fizzy in his head to hear that: safe from the Baron of West Derby's claws.
Other highlights include:
- Greater local (parental/ LEA) say in which new schools open up, based on local need rather than say, market forces.
- An insistence that new teachers achieve some form of QTS in order to teach- and any that don't, take the long walk.
- Greater federation of school resources, perhaps in the manner of the Ark chain, an academy manager that he also name checks with admiration. In fact, there would be a requirement for schools to partner schools. The London Challenge is mentioned, as an example of how collaboration turned around an area from low performance to high.
- The final piece of meat is a promise to examine the way that schools admit pupils, with an emphasis on schools being allowed to prioritise children who are eligible for the Pupil Premium.
I finished reading the speech feeling like I had eaten bread for dinner. There was definitely something there, but it lacked flavour. Free Schools frozen. Academies encouraged where fit. Academy like freedoms expanded to all. Only the implication that LEAs would re-emerge put any significant distance between himself and the man who calls Aberdeen 'hame'. It was a speech heavy with vague generalisms, appeals to broadly uncontroversial notions of equality, liberty and empowerment. To me, it lacked salt. It was an admission that Gove's project has become normalised, the new status quo, something to be tinkered with rather than dismantled and sent back to the shop.
Those of us in the commentariat do not matter. But he matters. His office matters. I saw comments today from grateful tweeters, just happy he was saying something at all. It's still not an opposition of stature. The Labour front bench still seems thin on big ideas when it comes to education. Maybe that's why Twigg's been so quiet for so long. Maybe, on all the matters that matter, he agrees with Michael Gove. That's a tough match to win.