We would address your primary concern

Stephen Twigg

If there is one document that encapsulates the problem with the government's approach to education, it is the resignation letter that two of the expert panel members of the Department for Education's national curriculum review sent last month to Michael Gove.

In it, they say that the government's plans "fly in the face of evidence from the UK and internationally and, in our judgement, cannot be justified educationally".

Bizarrely, given that Gove appointed them to the position, he tried to dismiss them as "a few professors seeking to curry favour in Ed Miliband's Labour Party".

This goes to the heart of the secretary of state's myopia. He cannot see education beyond a narrow political prism. When people raise concerns about the evidence for his changes, he simply attacks them as the "enemies of promise" or similar.

It is a depressing narrative that does nothing to advance the cause of good teaching. It is why Labour said we would focus on establishing an Office for Educational Improvement, a bit like the Office for Budget Responsibility, in order to ensure that the best available evidence is acted on by ministers.

We saw the effects of Gove's dogma-not-evidence approach in the chaotic way his plans to go back to a system of O levels and CSEs were announced. For changes to be leaked to the Daily Mail while pupils were entering exam halls to take tests he was calling "worthless" must have caused frustration and confusion.

While there is some sense in reforming GCSEs, creating a two-tier system, effectively a cap on aspiration, cannot be the solution. We need a curriculum and examination system that prepares all pupils for the modern economy and to succeed in life.

I want to focus more broadly on primary education in this article. In government, Labour put a lot of effort and investment into improving the early years and primary sector. From trying to ensure that children came to reception class better prepared for school, to reducing infant class sizes and developing literacy and numeracy strategies, we believed firmly that every child deserved the best start in life.

It sounds like a truism, but at the heart of a successful primary school is a quality headteacher, supported by professional teachers, teaching assistants and other support staff.

But it bears repeating when so much of the government's programme for raising primary standards is narrowly focused on "structural tinkering", such as converting underperforming schools into academies. Structures can have an effect, but more important is the quality of teaching.

Overall, Labour recruited 42,000 more teachers. We also made an effort to attract a wider pool of talent to the classroom, through programmes such as Teach First. Dogmatic attacks on the teaching profession will not do much to help recruitment and retention at a time when numbers are falling.

We need to examine initial teacher training, but I am aware that a lot of effective teacher development happens on the job. I have asked former London schools tsar Tim Brighouse to conduct a review of continuing professional development. I want to see teacher standards reflect ongoing development and better support for ongoing training.

We know that the best teachers motivate their pupils to work hard and that they assess them, often informally, regularly. They also collaborate effectively with others, testing and sharing their ideas, either on a local basis or through subject specialisms. Adapting lesson plans and teaching methods on the basis of analysis of these assessments drives pupil progression.

While these general themes are borne out by research, I am also conscious that politicians should no more tell teachers how to teach than they would a surgeon how to operate. There should be the freedom to innovate in both teaching methods and programmes of study.

Whatever field you work in, the ability to succeed in it is more about how you inspire your audience than regurgitating facts. Communication skills are critical, especially to promote language learning and wider development at an early age. I have talked elsewhere about the importance of oracy. The national curriculum expert panel suggests that oral language development should be the foundation for reading and writing.

Strategies to help all schools

Countries such as Finland focus on oral development first and then teach reading from age 7. Pupils make greater progress because they learn to decode and code things they already know how to say. I want to learn from best practice abroad and at home to ensure we have a sound evidence base for reform.

Much angst has surrounded the phonics test. While I am a supporter of synthetic phonics, and have seen how effective it can be in schools such as Cuckoo Hall in London, I do not think it is necessary to have another test to provide information that teachers will already know. More broadly, the government is wrong to cut back on literacy schemes such as Bookstart and Every Child a Reader. They helped some of the poorest pupils to catch up, and were shown to save money long term.

Finally, on places. I have said that the shortage of primary places is one of the biggest crises facing the education system today. The system needs nearly half a million additional places by the next election. The government failed to respond with urgency on this, preferring to focus its resources on free schools, the majority of which will be secondaries, and many of which are not based on the need for new places or parental demand.

We know times are tough, but we have to ensure fairness of funding. It is surely the first duty of a secretary of state to ensure that there are enough primary places in the system.

We need a strategy that helps all schools. Sadly, whether it comes to the curriculum, primary places, funding or teaching standards, Gove prefers to focus on pet projects rather than evidence.

Stephen Twigg MP is Labour's shadow education secretary.

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