Stephen Twigg's speech .More detail needed but the direction is promising.

Fiona Millar's picture
Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, made an important speech yesterday. Twigg has been on the receiving end of some criticism over the last year, not least from me, for failing to make a clear and robust argument against what the Coalition government is doing.

But I have read the speech carefully and think it shows that he has been listening and thinking about the points that others, including the founders of this site, have been making about some aspects of the Gove legacy.

His speech distinguishes Labour policy from Gove’s, marks a subtle shift away from what the previous Labour government did and is forward looking.

It was refreshing to hear such a prominent politician speak in positive, rather than negative, terms about the professionals who make our schools work. Rather than being the enemies of promise, Twigg cast them as the “enablers of promise”.

It is so blindingly obvious that we can’t build a successful, flourishing school system on the back of disenchantment and low morale but the daily outpourings of negativity from the DFE have left many heads and teachers feeling discouraged and undervalued.

As one headteacher said to me last week: ‘I wonder if they will ever let us know if we are doing anything right”.

There is a place for appropriate challenge, and even some criticism, in our school system but the current government’s attitude is the equivalent of a teacher facing his or her class every morning with the words: “You are all absolutely useless – now go ahead and do your very best”. One can only imagine what Ofsted might think of that approach to a child and Labour is right to tack a different course.

Equally important were Twigg’s remarks about school “ freedoms”. It is a nonsense that some schools have “ freedoms” that other schools don’t have, simply on the basis of their “type”. We currently have a situation where a failing school can be forcibly turned into an academy and be given “freedoms” that a very good maintained school can’t have.

So if it is a good freedom – for example on curriculum flexibility – every school should have it. If it is a bad freedom – on admissions, or being given the chance to turn away children with SEN, to sell unhealthy food or employ unqualified teachers– it shouldn’t be given to any school.

Last week I wrote in the Guardian here about the muddle that has been left by successive governments setting up new academy schools with different funding agreements (all incorporating different rights and responsibilities).

There is a way of bringing some coherence back to this system. Barrister David Wolfe who blogs here has analysed the problems being stacked up by this piecemeal approach and has also suggested how legislation might be used to ensure that no schools is advantaged or disadvantaged by its “type”. Stephen Twigg should be applauded for wanting to tackle this problem.

Twigg’s statements on free schools /academies seem to have confused some people. However I read them as follows. As far as Twigg is concerned “free schools and academies are not a panacea for school improvement”, as we at LSN have been arguing for some time.  There are great academies, but there are also great maintained schools. Our data also shows that similar schools, whether maintained or academy, have improved at more or less the same rate over the past decade.

Twigg rightly argues that it is unrealistic for the DFE to oversee thousands of schools from the centre so there needs to be clear LOCAL oversight of ALL schools. More detail is needed on this point and former Labour Education Secretary David Blunkett will be expected to provide the small print following a review, also announced yesterday.

Existing free schools and academies will continue. I believe this model of independent school, based on a commercial contract with the Secretary of State and often blurred by the role of expansionist academy chains, is a bad one. But I also recognise that the Tories have taken this policy in a direction that was never intended by Labour.

Turning every independent state school back into a maintained school would a time and energy trap and may not be necessary if the legislative framework evens out the difference.

But the significant point for me is that Labour would NOT continue with Michael Gove’s Free Schools Policy, which Twigg describes as divisive and ideological. No new schools would be built under Labour unless there is a demonstrable need for more places.

Parents could sponsor new schools under a future Labour government, as they could under the last, but would have a choice of whether to have an academy or maintained school.

“There will be no bias for or against a school type – so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools – all options” he explained.

This is actually a change from what happened in practice under the last Labour government, which introduced the idea of local competitions in which a variety of providers including the local authority could bid to run new schools.

The first open competition was won by a local LA led community school bid so the then government, which was more ideological on this issue than Twigg appears to be, began to undermine the process immediately by encouraging local authorities to go down a “preferred sponsor” route. This prioritised academies, and became the default choice in many cases as it was quicker (and less transparent) and made it easier for local authorities to access BSF funding.

My own personal view is that many parents – faced by the choice of a trust or community school or an academy run by a chain, which in reality is what some parent promoted free schools have become – will plump for the maintained model. This was the case with Elm Green and JCoss – two parent promoted schools set up under Labour.

Finally Twigg sets out a stall that appears to be more for collaboration than competition to achieve higher standards. Much more information is needed on how this would work in practice, but he suggests that schools aspiring to an outstanding Ofsted rating would be required to partner a weaker neighbour and cites the principles of London Challenge, which transformed schools in the capital, through sharing good practice and the strong helping the weak.

This is certainly a more attractive model  than the contentious, divisive and unnecessary forced academies programme and we need more clarity about what would happen to that policy and the over paid unaccountable brokers who promote it on behalf of the DFE.

Crucially he talks about fair admissions “The comprehensive ideal, within a mixed economy of schools” For too long in government Labour has avoided the C word like the plague. Yet comprehensive education is still the key to raising standards for all children.

Some practical suggestions are mentioned – toughening up the Code, enhanced powers for the Office of the Schools’ Adjudicator( and Local Ombudsman’s office where academies are concerned). This really just scratches the surface. There is NO mention of academic selection – one of the big elephants in the room when it comes to our highly segregated school system – or of faith schools or of how we might positively seek to get more balanced intakes across all our schools. Again a lot more detail is needed.

And of course the issue of structures and governance is only half the story. Perhaps more important is what is taught in schools, what is valued, how we ensure breadth in the curriculum, rigorous assessment, good teaching and learning and move to an accountability system that values skills and personal development as well as exam passes.

In some ways it is a workmanlike rather than an inspiring vision for what Labour can achieve. I have always thought Labour would need to do two things if it is to have a credible and exciting education policy.

First to set out how it would deal with the legacy (the prosaic stuff) and then explain its “What if we weren’t starting from here?” vision, which would set out how a fully comprehensive system could work in practice and the role of schools in a fairer, more socially just society.

This isn’t just about fair admissions but also about a broad, engaging curriculum, fewer exams and tests and from the LSN point of view, a final qualification like the Baccalaureate certificate at 18, currently being proposed by the Head Teachers’ Round Table here which  I discussed on the BBC This Week programme last week.

So there is still some way to go but on balance, the direction of travel looks good.






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