The history boy who can see the `follies of man'

6th June 2014 at 01:00
Labour's Tristram Hunt on taking the long view of education

When Tristram Hunt was named as Labour's education spokesman last year, the appointment raised more than a few eyebrows within the teaching profession.

His previous career as a historian, coupled with his relative inexperience as a politician, led many to question whether Mr Hunt was the most suitable choice to set out the party's stall on education just 18 months ahead of a general election. After all, this was a man more instantly recognisable on our television screens talking about the English Civil War or Isaac Newton than about holes in the Conservatives' schools policy.

When Mr Hunt meets TES, he is sitting in the central London offices of his publishing company talking about his new book, Ten Cities that Made an Empire, proving that despite the move into front-line politics, he is still very much a historian.

Unlike most politicians in Westminster, Mr Hunt is jocular and at ease poking fun at himself - during the interview, while discussing his chapter on Dublin, he attempts an Alan Partridge-style Irish accent. "Geooorgian Dooblin", he says, sounding rather like a pirate.

So which is he, a historian or a politician? His inability to give a straight answer suggests the latter.

"Oh, I see myself as the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent. That is my job and it is a great privilege," he says. "But my background was as a historian, and once you are a historian it is difficult to get out of your system."

Straddling the roles of historian and politician has its advantages and disadvantages, Mr Hunt says. Being able to see the "follies of man and the cycle of repetition" can give much-needed perspective, but there comes a point when he has to "shed" the habit of viewing everything from both sides, because otherwise he would "get absolutely nowhere".

"There are times when you sit down with experts and you have your shiny new schools or further education policy and they say, `Oh, I remember this from 15 years ago'," he says, laughing wryly. "But I think you have to put that to one side."

Mr Hunt's performance as shadow education secretary has not won him universal praise. Clear-cut policies that distinguish his own and his party's position have, for some critics, been too few and far between.

But listening to Mr Hunt, it is clear that he has a firm grasp of the challenges facing education and, again, his background as a historian helps him to look at the bigger picture.

"This is the criticism I get, that what everyone wants is a Big Bang reform that will shake everything up and make your mark," he says. "Actually, what do we know that works? It's turning the dial on CPD - making sure we have career structures and pathways that keep great teachers in the classroom and excited, and keeping them motivated.

"We're not going to indulge in massive curriculum reform, undoing what's taken place. We need a bit of stability with the curriculum."

His words will come as a relief to the teaching profession, which is suffering from reform fatigue after four years of having Michael Gove at the helm. But as a historian, what does Mr Hunt think of the new history curriculum?

"It is a little dry for the early years," he says. "Getting children excited about the past in the early years is important and it is very difficult to do without being able to teach, you know, the Fire of London or other iconic events that open up the past.

"But I have always said the problem is the time in the curriculum and the space given by senior management in schools to the teaching of history. Actually, the previous curriculum in terms of key stage 3 and key stage 4 was fine. And all this nonsense that it didn't teach British history was absolute." he is about to say one word then quickly chooses another, ".baloney."

Where there is a potential for consensus, Mr Hunt is willing to support anyone's idea as long as he considers it to be a good one - often to the chagrin of his fellow shadow ministers. "I'm not as ideological as some in our team would want me to be, and where there is common cause then that is fine," he says.

Although he is eager to point out the differences between his approach and that of his Conservative counterpart, particularly as regards "the structural chaos" of free schools and "the complete absence of thinking when it comes to technical and vocational education", it is nevertheless refreshing to listen to someone willing to put the profession ahead of the politics.

By the end of the interview it seems apparent that Mr Hunt is neither a historian nor a politician but both. He names Joseph Chamberlain - the late 19th-century, Socialist-cum-Liberal-cum-quasi-Conservative politician known more for being a pragmatist than an ideologue - as the historical figure who most interests him.

It seems fitting. Chamberlain was also a prominent in championing the cause of free education, much to the annoyance of his less radical colleagues. He made his own place in history. Perhaps Mr Hunt will, too.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today