Once again, Mr Twigg has something to smile about

16th December 2011 at 00:00
The former schools minister is full of enthusiasm after returning to his area of expertise as Labour's shadow education secretary

In his bright, slightly cluttered office in Westminster, Stephen Twigg is standing with his hand outstretched, flashing that familiar boyish grin. It is a smile that millions would recognise; a smile that has come to symbolise New Labour's historic landslide victory in 1997.

On that night, Mr Twigg, a relatively unknown 30-year-old parliamentary candidate, did the unthinkable. He defeated then defence secretary and potential future leader of the Conservative party, Michael Portillo, to claim the seat of Enfield Southgate.

It was an image that came to encapsulate the drama of that night (see page 28). A grimacing Mr Portillo took to the stage, while the victor waited sheepishly in the wings, wearing that cheeky smile.

His triumph in the early hours of 2 May was voted the third most important TV moment in history, after Nelson Mandela being freed from prison and the 1969 moon landing. The survey was, he quickly points out, conducted in 1998 and polled Channel 4 viewers and Observer readers. Nevertheless, the politician has barely changed since that night nearly 15 years ago.

Mr Twigg has returned to the pages of TES after being handed the shadow education portfolio in October by Labour leader Ed Miliband, bringing him neatly back to an area in which he enjoyed quiet success during his time in government. He was, for three years, that rare beast: a highly regarded junior schools minister. Ask almost any educational insider - unionist, quangocrat, policy wonk - and they will tell you that Mr Twigg was a top-class operator.

"It is, without doubt, my passion," he says. "My number one choice is education. I love it, as it's an area that is so important for so many obvious reasons and I feel I have some experience and knowledge, but I still have a great deal to learn."

His return to frontline politics - replacing the largely anonymous Andy Burnham as shadow education secretary - has been widely welcomed by the education establishment. Take, for example, John Dunford. The former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders is quick to point out that Mr Twigg was widely respected among the profession.

"He was well-liked and he was keen to see the evidence before implementing a policy. He always tried to consult the profession, which we could do with seeing more of," Mr Dunford says.

Such words are likely to give Mr Twigg confidence as he embarks on his new job, one that draws a line under years of wandering the political wilderness.

After reaching the heady heights of success in 1997, and a repeat of the same feat in 2001, the inevitable finally caught up with him in 2005, when the Tories reclaimed his constituency. But any thoughts of doing something else with his life were swiftly dismissed and he successfully won the seat for Liverpool West Derby in 2010.

"When I lost, I made a quite quick decision to come back and that I wasn't going to come back into Enfield Southgate," he says matter-of-factly. "I had an amazing opportunity to represent my home constituency, but - while I am sure we will win it again - it's not one of those seats that is typically Labour."

Now safely in a seat that is "typically Labour" (Liverpool West Derby has not hosted a non-Labour MP since 1964), Mr Twigg is keen to pick up from where he left off as schools minister in 2005. But the landscape in which he now finds himself is almost unrecognisable. When he was last grappling with education policy, academies were in their nascent stages; they are now almost the norm, certainly in the secondary sector. And new to the mix are free schools, which allow any parent, teacher or charity group to lodge a bid to open a new school where they feel local provision is not up to scratch.

The architect of these reforms is education secretary Michael Gove, who has repeatedly claimed that his policies are merely the logical conclusion of what Mr Twigg's former boss, Tony Blair, started.

Free schools have become a sticking point for Mr Twigg, with those on the right claiming that he endorses the education secretary's pet policy. It is an issue he is keen to put right.

"To be absolutely clear, we are opposed to the policy and as the legislation went through we opposed it," he says. "We have serious concerns about free schools, as there are fewer restrictions on them, such as when it comes to qualified teacher status and the type of buildings they have. There are also concerns being raised about the apparently low number of pupils they have on free school meals.

"But these schools are now opening, so we have to have an intelligent approach to them as they open. A number are being opened to some of the best leaders in progressive education. No Labour politician is going to close a successful school."

He is, however, critical of Mr Gove's approach, which he believes has focused too heavily on structures, not standards. "I think we, in government, emphasised structures a bit too much," Mr Twigg concedes. "Structures matter, but the academic research ... I think (emeritus professor at London University's Institute of Education) Dylan Wiliam's research showed that structures only contribute 8 per cent.

"It's much more about teaching and learning and leadership. I'm not taking the debate right back to standards not structures, because structures matter. But I am saying standards should be the bigger part of the focus and I'm saying Michael Gove has taken it far too far along the spectrum to a focus overwhelmingly on structures."

Listening to Mr Twigg, it is clear the debate around education is likely to become more nuanced than it was under his predecessor. And where Mr Burnham struggled to gain a foothold in education - he made no secret of his preference for health - Mr Twigg illustrates a firm grasp of the underlying issues in education.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that, as an arch Blairite, he is far less likely to oppose Coalition policy just to be oppositional. For example, he says he is "relaxed" about raising the entry requirements for teaching and, even when it comes to the English Baccalaureate - the bete noire for Mr Burnham and many secondary heads around the country - he is willing to admit that it has achieved a "thoroughly good thing" in improving the uptake of modern foreign languages.

This signals a shift from some of Mr Burnham's more worrying rhetoric. He claimed, for example, that students in his constituency of Leigh had little use for languages.

But while Mr Twigg acknowledges some of the benefits of the EBac, he is also quick to point out what he sees as fundamental failures in the performance measure. And he is keen to carry on the work of his predecessor by making vocational qualifications a key battleground in his future plans.

"It's a very, very important part of our policy work. It won't be my exclusive focus, but it's a very important part of the work. I'm very interested about how we get this right," he says.

The EBac, he believes, is likely to have a detrimental impact on the wider curriculum due to it having too narrow a focus, particularly when it comes to more technical subjects. It is because of this that he promises to revisit the Tomlinson report and to look again at parts of the now-defunct diplomas.

Mr Twigg was schools minister at the time of the debate around the Tomlinson report and the future of A-levels, and it is a source of some regret for him. "I've got mixed feelings about it. I certainly do have regrets," he says. "Tomlinson came out at the end of 2004 and we were having an election in 2005. Tony Blair was very sceptical about Tomlinson, mostly because he was worried about the A-level gold standard being undermined. Especially before an election."

The resultant diplomas that were unveiled by a Twiggless Labour government failed to gain traction, but Mr Twigg still believes something could be salvaged from the wreckage.

"Heads said it was too inflexible and the Government has cut its funding, so it doesn't look as though our diplomas are going to be playing a big part in the future," he says. "(There are) question marks as I develop a policy: are there features of the diplomas that we introduced that we would want to retain?"

At this point he becomes aware that much of the conversation has been too secondary-focused, and is quick to emphasise how important the primary sector will be in his policy decisions - an area that fell under his remit during his time as schools minister.

"When we talk about curriculum, there is a fear that primary and early years get lost in that discussion," he says. "I remember the primaries would always say so much of the focus is on secondary and I do feel the current reforms are too secondary-focused - it is the wrong way round."

His eagerness to ensure that the entire educational landscape is considered as he formulates his policies ahead of the next general election is, perhaps, a prime example of his grounding in education. Like Mr Gove, Mr Twigg regards himself as a progressive and, as such, he is likely to act as an entertaining and well-informed adversary to the current education secretary.

Only time will tell whether Mr Twigg will be wearing his trademark grin on election night in 2015, but Mr Gove would do well to learn from Mr Portillo's experience. His new opposite number is not to be underestimated.


1966: Born in Enfield, north London

1971-77: Attended Grange Park Primary School

1977-84: Attended Southgate Secondary School

1984-87: Studies politics, philosophy and economics at Balliol College, Oxford

1990-92: President of the National Union of Students

1992-97: Councillor in the London borough of Islington

1996-97: General secretary of the Fabian Society

1997: Elected as MP for Enfield Southgate

2001: Parliamentary secretary to Robin Cook

2002: Appointed junior minister in the former Department of Education and Skills

2004: Minister of state for school standards

2005: Loses his seat in the general election

2010: Re-elected as MP for Liverpool West Derby

2011: Named shadow education secretary.

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