Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Academy rewards

Following a major speech last month, Stephen Twigg outlines his vision for Britain’s schools to Adam Harrison

It is the week when Labour’s shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, delivered a crucial speech on his plans for schools under a Labour government, coming less than a fortnight after Ed Miliband and Ed Balls set out the party’s stall on welfare and the economy. While his speech may never be ranked as highly as what was once voted the third most memorable TV moment of all time – that era-defining accolade belongs to Twigg’s own toppling of Michael Portillo in 1997 – it was the latest step towards a fully fleshed-out plan for government, as Twigg himself is quick to acknowledge. ‘There are less than two years until an election – clearly there are some questions a Labour government would have to answer on where we would go.’

At any time his is a tricky brief: the Home Office is thought by most to be the graveyard of politicians, but, in Labour politics, navigating education can be just as perilous. As with other elements of the party’s record in power, queasiness on the part of some at Labour’s record has not been matched by continued celebration of its achievements. The shadow education secretary began his speech by quoting the words of the 15-year-old pupil of Paddington Academy who addressed Labour party conference in Manchester last year and who came to Britain as an asylum seeker: ‘Education means a way to escape deprivation. It symbolises a better, more stable life for us and those who surround us.’ What Twigg politely failed to mention was the heckling she received from the conference floor, something reported with glee by the Daily Mail.

If a schoolgirl is booed for celebrating the success of a Labour academy, what criticism might Twigg have come in for in the wake of his speech on schools? He was, he reveals, pleased to have received a ‘broad welcome from both Fiona Millar and Andrew Adonis’, whose names he mentions not by accident, together being something of a Scylla and Charybdis for a Labour education spokesperson, but, he notes, each, ‘coming from their different perspectives, [what] both of them … share is a passion for comprehensive education; they disagree about how best to achieve it’.

More broadly, despite crowing about ‘white flags’ from the Conservatives, Labour’s promise to retain increased powers for parents in setting up schools while strengthening local oversight of academies and existing free schools appeared to stump the government. And, when questioned directly about free schools, Twigg is clear in his response: ‘We don’t support free schools’; the programme will be ended under a Labour government. He excoriates the coalition for its concentration on the programme at the expense of the primary school places crisis gripping the country, and free schools’ preponderance in areas of affluence – in stark contrast to Labour’s academies which sought to bring excellent education to the most deprived areas.

In taking on the education brief in October 2011 Twigg says he was determined to focus on ‘education standards and on the status and morale of the teaching profession’, and that he was ‘deliberately not wanting to get focused on structures’. Such talk inevitably invites comparisons with the early New Labour mantra of ‘standards not structures’. But was not the lesson from that period that the two cannot be separated, hence the drive towards academies after 2001? He agrees: ‘I think the two can’t be divorced … Effective structures are servants of high standards.’

But Twigg also warns that ‘a structures debate in my experience gets the political class very excited but is of very, very little interest to parents and the wider public.’ He adds his own critique of Labour’s time in government: ‘We went a bit too far the other way, a bit too much focused on structures because, in the end, if you look at … successful schools, what are the ingredients for a successful school? … It’s about having a really good head, really good leadership at all levels of the school, high quality of teaching and learning, good relationships within the school and between the school and the broader community.’ His message is that it is not the type of school that determines success, but what goes on inside that matters.

Twigg makes clear that ‘academies are absolutely here to stay’ but also concludes that they are not ‘the cure-all, the panacea’, comparing this more nuanced position with the blunderbuss approach of Michael Gove: ‘His view would be you force a school that is struggling to become an academy, and that will solve the problem.’ The London Challenge, which Twigg oversaw as an education minister and set out to turn around schools in the capital – then the worst-performing region – has clearly influenced his thinking greatly. London now enjoys the best-performing state secondary schools in the country, and he, once again, echoes another mantra of the New Labour era: ‘My view is based on a judgement about the evidence, looking into what works.’ The emphasis on ‘what works’ in structures is to be left to local communities to make the decision that is right for them. ‘I don’t have any sort of ideological preference for any one of those solutions [of different types of school].’

At the same time, Twigg is clear on the need to extend collaboration throughout the school system. ‘The principle of collaboration is crucial. [It] is sometimes perhaps seen as a soft or cuddly alternative to harder-edged intervention. Actually collaboration can be very, very challenging if it’s structured in the right way.’ He speaks of ‘trusting teachers to get on with the job’, but with collaboration – rather than competition – as the core principle of this landscape: ‘The main drivers of school improvement in the future will be the schools themselves.’  And he envisages local government emerging as a ‘champion for pupils’ with beefed-up powers for councils to issue notices to improve to all state-funded schools in their locality, not just maintained schools.

Twigg does not see Whitehall leaving the education stage altogether, however. ‘Central government does have a stake in the pattern of new schools …The bulk of the capital comes from central government so I think what we need is an approach that is a partnership between the schools, local government and central government.’ But the sucking of power and funds to Michael Gove’s department is deleterious, unsustainable and contrary to Labour values, he argues. ‘Gove is the arch-centraliser. He is directly responsible as secretary of state now for several thousand schools and new schools created through his free schools programme.’ Criticised by some in the days following his speech for his emphasis on granting new freedoms to schools, Twigg rejects the idea that this is a Conservative notion. One such change the shadow education secretary hopes to put in place is greater freedom over the curriculum for teachers. ‘We in the Labour party on the left of politics, we should be the ones arguing for innovation, freedom for teachers to shape a curriculum … and making the contrast with Gove … whose approach to the curriculum is highly prescriptive.’

Inevitably conversation turns to Twigg’s famous Portillo-slaying moment and lessons from the past. Is he still a Blairite, as he is so often labelled? He does not quite answer directly, but notes Tony Blair’s influence in his unexpected win in Enfield, and argues that ‘there is a core truth about what Tony did in 1997… For parties of the centre-left to win, they have to have a broad range of support.’ He also, somewhat surprisingly, cites his 1997 win as ‘undoubtedly the high point of my political life’, adding ‘so far’ after just a flicker of reflection. Getting the chance to realise his vision for schools would, perhaps, supersede even being the star of the third most memorable TV moment of all time.

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Adam Harrison

is a councillor in the London borough of Camden

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