`It was great fun. You're sitting in the political cockpit'

29th May 2015 at 01:00
Graham Stuart recalls five years as education committee chair

Back in 2010, Graham Stuart was busy persuading a formidable former Labour adversary to back his bid to become the next chair of the Commons Education Select Committee.

"I had spent three years trying to trip up and catch out and generally question then secretary of state Ed Balls," the Conservative MP says. "But I found myself lobbying him and asking him to vote for me to be chairman.

"He did say to me that if I was half as much a pain in the arse to his successor as I had been to him, he would happily vote for me. So he did."

Now, as Mr Stuart brings eight years of scrutinising education policy to an end so that he can stand for chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, it is fair to say that he has more than delivered his side of the bargain.

Michael Gove may be too congenitally polite to ever describe the Member for Beverley and Holderness as a "pain in the arse". But during Mr Gove's time as education secretary, that is almost certainly what Mr Stuart became.

Others heading select committees have been known to take an emollient tone with ministers, particularly when they hail from the same party. But Mr Stuart was happy to upbraid Mr Gove on the pace of his "rushed and ill-thought-out" reforms, on hostile leaks emanating from the Department for Education, and on the careers service, where he said Mr Gove had taken "an appalling situation and made it worse".

Clash of the titans

Nonetheless Mr Stuart insists he is a huge fan of Mr Gove, who he says "came in with a complete moral commitment to the importance of education".

"That burned within him," he adds, speaking from his Westminster office as the division bell rings in the background. "It was my duty to challenge. But I like Michael and he doesn't hold a grudge.Being questioned and debating isn't something that he finds uncomfortable, even if sometimes he was keen not to answer the question when [it was] repeatedly put."

Mr Stuart also "quite" liked Mr Balls, he says, but he feels the fallen big beast, who lost his seat in this month's general election, was "not a particularly good secretary of state", adding: "Maybe his head was elsewhere and he was trying to do another job at the same time."

As for the third education secretary he scrutinised - present incumbent Nicky Morgan - Mr Stuart believes the jury is still out. "She did fine for nine months," he says. "But only in the next year will she have the time and space to set out her vision of the future of the education system and we will find out who she is."

The former businessman is broadly supportive of the Tories' record, stating that the education system is "undeniably better than it was in 2010". But he says his committee deserves credit for improving on the policies that were planned.

Among the achievements he cites is the new Progress 8 league table measure, describing it as "better but far from perfect". "We were instrumental in that," he says. "It wouldn't have happened without us."

The "we" is crucial for Mr Stuart, who is clearly proud of the cross-party consensus that his committee members achieved. He notes that on the only occasion when they published a report without unanimous agreement, it was a Conservative MP who demurred.

Mr Stuart supports the challenge that he believes academies and free schools have presented to a "one-size-fits-all, take-what-you-are-given, local-authority-oversight system". But he thinks it is important that the government "doesn't get ideological about it".

"Some local authorities do a great job," he explains. "There is nothing magical about academies that means they are necessarily always better."

He is also concerned that teachers could feel "they are permanent victims of a pace of change which they can't cope with".

There are "real issues with [teacher] recruitment and morale", Mr Stuart adds. "The most important thing in education is the quality of teaching. On the one hand you have got to send out a clear signal that you aspire to do better. But on the other, the last thing you want to do is express dissatisfaction with the amazingly dedicated people who provide education to children today."

On teacher stress

The MP was approached by a teacher in his East Yorkshire constituency only last week who had always been rated "outstanding" but now "felt permanently anxious".

"He feels he is only one assessment away from being dubbed a failure," Mr Stuart says. "I meet so many [teachers] who do feel so stressed that it cannot entirely be some kind of groupthink based on a fallacious understanding of government policy."

As for school inspection, often cited as the ultimate cause of teacher stress, Mr Stuart suggests, thinking aloud, that groups of schools in the same area that collectively meet a certain standard could be spared Ofsted and instead be made liable for each other's performance.

Ofsted itself, he feels, may have made a mistake in deciding to bring all its inspectors in-house. "Quality is maintained more if things are tendered and contested, rather than delivered by a central organisation. It is quite easy to get a bit soggy."

Mr Stuart once urged Mr Gove to "stop taking the urgency pills" over exam reform. Today he reflects that "from one end of the telescope it feels horrendously fast.but at the other end it takes absolutely years for necessary reforms to increase rigour, reliability and the rest to actually come through".

He jokes that one of his biggest "frustrations" on the committee was never having a witness who refused to appear, allowing him to send the serjeant-at-arms out to arrest them. "That would have been amusing," he says. But it is the breadth of people he was able to question that Mr Stuart views as one of the privileges of the role.

"It is great fun. You are sitting in the political cockpit of the country in Parliament and anyone who you want to talk to you will come and talk to you - great!"

Graham Stuart's CV

  • Born in Carlisle on 12 March 1962.
  • Attended Glenalmond College, an independent school in Perth.
  • Read philosophy and law at Selwyn College, Cambridge, but failed his degree after concentrating on setting up a publishing business.
  • Elected MP for Beverley and Holderness, East Yorkshire, in 2005.
  • Voted in as chair of the Commons Education Select Committee in 2010.
    • Stuart on Gove

      "Stop taking the urgency pills and recognise the need to slow down. Stop changing things all the time."

      October 2012

      "Michael Gove had a blind spot when it came to careers advice and guidance."

      September 2014

      "Who did the research for your `Mr Men' speech? Do you think you need to show more care in the headline-grabbing references you use, especially when you are talking about the curriculum, in case it undermines your own position in determining what the curriculum should be?"

      May 2013

      "How did you put out such a dog's breakfast for this one particular [design and technology] curriculum?"

      May 2013

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, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today