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Tom Bennett: "Is the hunt for Gove now finally afoot with the appointment of Tristram?"

Tom Bennett, TES behaviour guru and head of RE at Raines Foundation School, East London, writes:

So, Twigg is no more. Labour's shadow front bench finally managed to download the upgrade to their operating system they needed, at least in education (although they probably won't be able to make any calls now, and their batteries will run down every two hours). And Tristram Hunt, the newly crowned Shadow Ed-Sec, no longer has to tip his hat to the undoubtedly kind-hearted but utterly ineffective Twigg. Did an education secretary ever face a less fearful foe? Michael Gove will look wistfully back on the Twigg years as a kind of Golden Age of plenty and ease.

I watched Hunt present at this Summer's Wellington Festival of Education and thought, 'There's a talented man who's brief is too tight' (*hello sailor* klaxon). And now that Miliband has finally had the damned sense to promote someone capable to the post, Labour might actually have some gas in their tank as far as education policy goes. Hunt is as close to an insider as education is likely to get: PhD historian with actual teaching time banked in his utility belt (he was a former lecturer in Modern History at Queen Mary, the University of London). He might never have actually marked a stack of year 7 essays, but he at least knows what a student looks like.

To the casual observer, it appears that some enter politics solely in order to obtain a parking space in central London and bang their assistants as they fill out expense claims for Haribo and evil. But Hunt might just be one of the good guys; working on an exchange visit to Chicago introduced him to urban poverty, and he decided to do something about it. He's spoken about how education is an issue of social justice, which is a heartening thing to hear an ed sec say. But then, everyone in all parties believes that education is an issue of social justice. The question hinges on what one considers the definition of just. Is it 'to each according to his need?' as the subject of one of his papers, Engels, might have thought, or is it desert? Or equality?

He's spoken a lot about vocational subjects, particularly in his constituency of Stoke, where he claims there's an enormous skills gap, where children are leaving school poorly prepared for working life. I'm not sure if that aim of education- noble as it is- is actually what schools are there for. Personally I'd prefer it if apprenticeships were the primary vehicle of skills delivery in the social sphere- let the market drive the engine of vocational training, and let schools prepare children in other ways for their introduction to society. To claim that some kids 'are just better with their hands' is to commit the gravest act of social apartheid. What it should really mean is that some children haven't been educated properly in the cultural legacy of their society. We don't teach them Geography, English and- yes- History in order to make them better job centre fodder, but because we consider such knowledge to be intrinsically valuable. That view is closer to the Goveism, which is why the coalition hasn't really pulled any muscles sorting out vocational subjects. Hunt rightly jests that because the Tories haven't really done much in this area, it's an open field for him in which to play. And perhaps it is.

But now that the job's his, he can play every position in the field that he wants. And this is important because, while I find myself agreeing with a great deal of the academic Great Leap Forward that Chairman Gove has advanced, it cannot be healthy for any education secretary such as he to be so free from a nemesis that he can proceed unchallenged in parliament. Every axe needs a stone to keep it keen. Look what happened to Prince after he became so successful no one could say 'no' anymore. Who's Prince? Exactly. Gove has no natural predators in the Westminster jungle, at least not staring at him in the face in Parliament. He wipes the floor with anyone that comes close: he's too smart, too personable, too damned funny. Twigg had as much impact as a *** made of custard. Hunt might not be standing on the shoulders of giants right now (maybe Hobbits), but things can only get better for Labour education.

And I'll leave you with a final encouraging thought: when asked what he wanted to be when he was younger, he answered, 'A zookeeper', which means that in attempting to keep schools, the electorate, colleges, Universities and parents happy, he might just well have achieved his life's ambition. Oh, and when asked how he relaxed, he said, 'Planting bulbs that rarely flower.'

For more of Tom's TES blog, click here.

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