The future of the left since 1884

Education and Labour’s social mission: Tristram Hunt Fabian Society Lecture

Thank you. It is, as ever, a great pleasure to be speaking from the platform of the affiliated Fabian Society. And a tremendous honour too to be invited to give a lecture in the year of your 130th anniversary. “Educate, Agitate, Organise” is...


Thank you.

It is, as ever, a great pleasure to be speaking from the platform of the affiliated Fabian Society.

And a tremendous honour too to be invited to give a lecture in the year of your 130th anniversary.

“Educate, Agitate, Organise” is how George Bernard Shaw summed up your founding principles after  that first fateful meeting at 17 Osnaburgh Street.

But then again it was he who penned the infamous quote: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”.

So perhaps we will take his prescriptions with at least a pinch of salt.

Nevertheless, the continued commitment of the society to that first principle’s emancipatory power;

Of Beatrice and especially Sidney Webb to the cause of an excellent and equal education for all is beyond question.

As, of course, is the size of the enormous intellectual debt that the Labour Party has accumulated to you over the decades.

Indeed, a little too enormous some might tentatively argue.

After all, what does old school Fabianism have to say to the challenges posed by austerity in the context of a globalising capitalism?

However, with the IPPR’s Condition of Britain report last week, we saw, I think, further evidence of an intellectual revival in social democracy.

We have further to go of course, but it is not overly fanciful to suggest that this report could prove every bit as important as Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report 105 years ago.

And at the very least it serves as a powerful rejoinder to anybody who doubts Ed Miliband’s appetite for reforming the welfare state, renewing the public realm and moving decisively beyond the old Crosslandite model of redistributing the proceeds of a relatively untrammelled free market capitalism.

It is always worth remembering that long before the 2008 crash this model had led to a stagnation of living standards for working people, creating the conditions for the Cost of Living Crisis Ed is so determined to end.

Which is why we so desperately need new thinking and innovation.

So I am absolutely delighted to hear that under Andrew’s careful stewardship the Fabian Society are developing a framework for the renewal of our public services.

And that their work will be stressing the “public character” of our education system.

Because, Ladies and Gentleman, that is exactly what I have come to talk to you about today: how, in 2015, I will uphold our movement’s faith in the emancipatory power of education and the social purpose of schooling.

And more than this, how we can use it to fulfil our historic crusade to deliver social justice and improve the lives of the most vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged members of our society.


But first of all, perhaps as an attempt to focus minds on the other two of George Bernard Shaw’s founding Fabian principles, I want to stress what it at cost in the forthcoming election.

Because, the reason why Andrew’s project is so important is that our opponents have a very clear alternative.

It may be discredited, it may be un-British, it may even be politically unpopular – but that will not stop our ideologically fervent opponents attempting to apply the inhuman, totalising simplicity of its logic upon our most treasured public institutions.

I speak, of course, of privatisation and in particular the application of the profit-motive to schooling.

“It’s my belief that we could move to that situation” the Education Secretary told, of all places, the Leveson Inquiry in 2012.

Meanwhile, two years ago the Spectator magazine gushed of Liz Truss, perhaps Michael Gove’s most trusted ministerial colleague, that:

“You can tell a lot about a minister from their bookshelves. Some display photos of themselves with the great and the good, others favour wonky texts. As you walk into Elizabeth Truss’s seventh-floor office in the Department of Education, the first thing you see is think-tank pamphlet: “The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution”.

Throw in a 2013 leak that suggested for-profit schooling was being debated in the upper echelons of the Department of Education at the Secretary of State’s behest; factor in the pre-election ardour for Sweden’s voucherised and fully profit-making model; fnd the picture becomes ever clearer: beyond 2015, whether they admit it or not, the Conservative Party will introduce the profit-motive into English education.

Now, my position is, as you would expect, absolutely resolute on this issue. There is almost no public policy, in my opinion, with more capacity to damage the fabric of our society – let alone the educational values we cherish.

However, should we need further convincing, then we only need to witness the truly staggering scale of Sweden’s slide on the OECD’s internationally recognised PISA comparisons.

In the latest round, no other nation recorded as big a drop from their 2009 score in reading or maths.

And only Malaysia’s performance in science stopped Sweden from taking a most unwanted clean sweep.

Taking the long view hardly helps matters. In 2003 Sweden was ranked 17th in the mathematics global league table. Now it is ranked 38th. In reading it was ranked 8th. Now it is ranked 36th. Meanwhile in Science its ranking has fallen from 15th to 38th.

And whether you take the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) or the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study the story of a catastrophic collapse in standards is always the same.

Moreover, there is also strong evidence, published last year by Skolverket the Swedish Education Agency, which shows educational inequality is increasing rapidly too.

This last point must not be overlooked. Because no matter the success of a few individual for-profit schools, no matter their relative popularity in some areas of Sweden, the overall impact of for-profit schools on the performance of the whole system has been an unmitigated disaster.

So when we aspire to excellence for all, when we aspire to eliminate background from being a defining characteristic of destiny in any community, why would we choose to emulate a system that accepts failure for the many to preserve choice for the few?

In the Labour Party, we all know who most loses out in such a system.

Nevertheless, this is the aggressively competitive, fly-or-fail ethos that the Conservative Party aspire to bring to our school system – for all its administrative anarchy, the Free School programme is only the beginning.

The think-tanks are making all the right mood music.

The editorials – be they Telegraph, Spectator, Economist or Times – are increasingly aligned.

And nothing, not Al-Madinah, IES Breckland, Kings Science Academy, the negligence of Birmingham, the £2bn profligacy of the Academy and Free School programmes, not even the rising attainment gap between the white working class and their better off peers, will dissuade them from pursuing this broken model.

Make no mistake, for-profit schooling could easily happen and it will be entirely up to the Labour Party and our supporters to stop it.

Which is why the Fabian Society’s project is so crucial. Because however much we find it crude and repellent, however much we point out it lacks any grounding in evidence, there is no denying it has a cosmetic intellectual coherence.

Therefore, it is our duty to find a robust response that shows how it is the unwavering dedication, professional integrity and moral mission of public servants that best provides the impulse for innovation and thirst for improvement a successful, 21st century school system requires.

In 2015, the Labour Party will do that by offering: a world class teacher in every classroom, studio or workshop; a high quality, high aspiration, vocational education offer; a collaborative school system with strong local oversight and more accountability to parents and pupils; and an enriching educational experience that, alongside core learning, also nurtures our children’s character, resilience and emotional wellbeing.


But the most important of these is teaching. Because nowhere is the contrast between our progressive agenda and the Government’s regressive approach more stark than on the issue of teacher quality.

In contrast to their dogmatic, deregulatory mania, our starting point begins with the evidence, all of which is absolutely unequivocal.

There is no doubt: the surest way to improve our children’s attainment is by raising the standard, standing and status of teaching in our schools and colleges.

As educationalists from Sir Michael Barber to Andreas Schleicher have all argued, no education system can possibly exceed the quality of its teachers.

Yes, innovation, accountability and autonomy – underpinned by safeguards and minimum standards – matter enormously.

But it is without question teacher quality that makes the biggest difference to school standards.

Yet what makes improving teaching quality so crucial to us is that is also the surest way to deliver on our social mission.

Because its importance is even more pronounced when it comes to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that without social capital or parental input to fall back upon, teacher quality can mean as much as a year’s difference to the learning progress of disadvantaged children.

And the Education Select Committee’s shocking report into the underperformance in white working class boys and girls only reinforces those findings.

Therefore my first priority in Government would be to make sure we have a world class teacher in every classroom, studio or workshop – a highly qualified, self-motivating and dedicated professional workforce that reflects upon the evidence and continually enquires about its own craft and practice.

This has to begin with an end to madness of allowing unqualified teachers into the classroom on a permanent basis.

It simply cannot be right that you need more qualifications to work as a shift manager in a burger bar than you do to prepare our children for the future in this most demanding of centuries.

However, Qualified Teacher Status is the bare minimum we should expect. It is the correct place for a teacher to begin their professional development, but it absolutely must not be the end.

What is more, the traditional policy response that focuses exclusively upon reforming initial teacher training and attracting new high quality graduates to the profession, will not bring about the step change we need if we are to compete in the global educational arms race.

Because what that Sutton Trust and London School of Economics research also highlighted is that if we could just raise the performance of the least effective teachers already in the system merely to the average, then England would rank in the top five education systems in the world in reading and mathematics.

It is that tantalising prospect which motivates us in the Labour Party to think about new ways of improving teacher quality across the board.

So as well as reversing the Government’s policy on unqualified teachers;  as well as making we are preparing high calibre graduates and career switchers properly for the pressures of the classroom; under a Labour Government teachers would be expected to undertake regular professional development throughout their careers and revalidate their expertise at regular intervals.

Because we believe it is absolutely vital that teachers keep their skills, knowledge and practice up to date.

We believe that, given the pace of progress, an understanding of the latest pedagogical or technological innovations is sure to benefit pupils.

And we believe that a process of re-validating teachers’ expertise would bring them into line with other high-status, mature professions such as lawyers, doctors and accountants.

But we also believe that we need to look at new ways of encouraging the best teachers to carry on teaching in the classroom, as well as attracting them to the most challenging schools.

It simply cannot be right that the best teachers feel they need to go into management or leadership just to advance their careers and we to give teachers who want to build their expertise in a particular subject or pedagogical skills the opportunity to progress whilst still practicing the craft that first attracted them to the calling.

So we will listen to teachers and we will work with teachers in order to draw up a framework of new career pathways for teachers loosely based on the Singaporean system – one of the world’s leading education jurisdictions.

And we will ensure that there is a place for excellent higher education institutions within the initial teacher training system alongside classroom based models.

Because what the Labour Party is interested in is empowering teachers to be all they can and should be – professionals whose job is so important it requires the very highest levels of performance.

That is how we raise school standards and give children – especially those from disadvantaged communities – the opportunity to fulfil their potential.


But the truth is that we must extend this focus, this drive to deliver an excellent education for all, beyond schools and into colleges.

Speak to any business leader about their challenges and one of the first things they will say is skills.

To compete in the global economy we need the best skilled workforce in the world –  it is essential for the bold economic agenda Ed Miliband wants for our country: a high wage, hi-tech, high-innovation economy that works for all.

So our priority has to be an education system which allows learners to pursue excellence in vocational as well as academic pathways.

Clearly, this goes beyond the classroom: we need to drive up the quality of apprenticeships by making them all level 3 and last a minimum of two years;

We need to focusing further education colleges on local labour markets by ensuring all vocational teachers spend time in industry refreshing their skills; and we need to deliver a sharper focus for Further Education by accrediting the best colleges as new Institutes of Technical Education to deliver gold-standard technical learning;

Yet if we really want to tear down the deep-seated cultural barriers that exist between vocational and academic routes then we will need to do more.

This summer will mark the seventieth anniversary of Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act and, quite frankly, our problems go that far back.

The Technical School aspect of the tripartite system was never fully realised and you could make a convincing case that a lack of focus in vocational education represents the most historic failing of the English education system.

Certainly it is one of biggest failings of the current Government whose vocational education policy is akin to Lord Salisbury’s approach to foreign affairs: “let’s not get involved”.

Yet again this flies in the face of what we know our youngsters require. Evidence shows that there is a strong correlation between those European countries with the most effective vocational education system and low youth unemployment.

What we need is a clear and coherent strategy for all learners, one that binds different pathways to success together in a rigorous common framework.

So I am absolutely delighted to welcome the recent report of Labour’s skills task-force, which recommended that we develop a National Baccalaureate framework for all pupils aged 14-19.

Based on a three-part ‘common core’, the National Baccalaureate would mean that in addition to existing A-level or high-quality vocational qualifications, all learners would: study English and maths to 18; undertake an extended study or collaborative project; wand would develop their character, resilience and employability skills through a tailored personal development programme that could include work experience or community service.

This should not be seen as more unhelpful curriculum tinkering – the core learning component of the National Baccalaureate would be made up entirely from existing qualifications.

But it is about articulating a broader, authentically Labour vision for education: high aspirations for all; a rejection of the exam factory model; and a commitment to developing our young people’s character so that they are college ready, career ready, life ready.

Because when we look at the challenges facing our young people today, from global economic competition to increasing mental health problems, then I would argue that the need for a different approach to education that delivers excellence and opportunity for all our young people has never been more obvious.


Finally ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk about accountability and school oversight.

Because there can be little doubt, for the people of Birmingham at least, that this represents the most pressing challenge currently facing English schooling.

We have long argued that it is simply impossible to oversee thousands of schools from a desk in Whitehall; that the success of the London Challenge programme shows that you need collaborative school structures at a local level; and that England deserves a strategy for improving attainment in every school.

But I have to say I am shocked and deeply saddened to see allegations emerge that demonstrates our points with such devastating vehemence.

There are two interlocking issues. On the one we have the public policy implications. On the other we have an issue of basic ministerial competence.

And on the latter of these issues I am sorry to say that the Education Secretary is grossly deficient. The Government was warned of the problems in 2010 and sat on those warnings for four years before even considering taking firm action.

The story is the same when it comes to public policy. For four years, the Labour Party has been arguing that a lack of proper local oversight in our school system will damage education standards.

And in our local Director of School standards we have a clear solution, one that gives parents, pupils and communities a greater say in schooling, restores local accountability, and ensures that underperformance and safeguarding issues within English schools are addressed far more quickly that they ever will when controlled centrally by Whitehall.

However, there is broader challenge here too – how do we create a schools system that embodies our values, that spreads best practice, challenges underperformance and that prepares our young people to be citizens in a tolerant, open and multicultural England.

On that last point I think the time may well be right for Ofsted to introduce new inspection criteria so that no school can be judged as good or outstanding unless it is delivering a broad and balanced curriculum that will equip our children with all the skills needed for success in 21st century.

Yet surely there is also something to be said for creating a system that embodies our collaborative ethos, for encouraging schools to work together, challenging one another and sharing resources.

We want them to do that primarily because it helps to raise standards – our successful London Challenge programme helped turn around the performance of the capital city’s secondary schools which, within a decade, went from being one of the worst performing regions to comfortably the best.

However, if schools are working together in a collaborative schools system then I would argue that not only do problems become visible far more quickly, but also that any pernicious influence that seeks to narrow the scope of schooling is more easily resisted.

So we need to inculcate a school system where collaboration is allied with hard-edged partnership, where the profession is properly engaged and motivated, where outstanding teachers and head-teachers are empowered to raise standards, and where there is no tolerance of low expectations or excuses made for a poverty of ambition.

Make no mistake: this ethos will be a tremendous challenge for an education system that at times can seem a little dominated by a managerial, target driven performance culture.

But if we are to do it successfully it must begin from the bottom-up and be grown at a local level.


Whether it be William Lovett’s Chartist Schools, R.H Tawney and the Workers Educational Association, Anthony Crosland and the Comprehensive Movement, or Andrew Adonis’s Sponsored Academy Programme; the belief in the emancipatory power of schooling, its ability to lift people out of poverty and deliver social justice, has always been core to the Labour movement.

Equally importantly, a rich experience at school is vital to empowering citizens with the positive freedom necessary to choose how they want to live their life.

And that, writ large, leads to a fairer, more democratic society.

What is more, as an educator myself, I have also experience the great wonder of teaching, the moment when skills, knowledge and confidence begin to emerge in young enquiring minds.

How one step in understanding can lead to another; how learners start to take themselves beyond the curriculum; and then start to inform your own understanding of the subject and ability to teach it.

Yet, simply to describe education’s effect or list its uses, fails to illuminate the nature of what education is – something valuable in and of itself.

As John Dewey, the American educationalist, put it: “Education in its broadest sense, is the means of the social continuity of life”.

And what Dewey captures here is the power of education as one of the most important ties that bind us together – a union between past and future generations in a continuous, learning community.

In short, education exerts a vast social value on the public realm.

We know that such understanding is light years away from the Government’s approach, with its atomised school landscape and its aggressively competitive, fly-or-fail ethic.

But as research from the think-tank Demos has shown, that philosophy is already beginning to lead to a widening of the attainment gap and a regressive retrenchment in social justice.

So in 2015, there will be a clear choice on Education.

And it is only the Labour Party that can offer a public education system that will expose disadvantaged children to education’s full emancipatory power and offer excellence for all learners.

That is how I see us fulfilling our movement’s broader social mission.

Thank you.

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