The Case against Stephen TwiggAugust 17, 2013
It is far easier to argue against Twigg than Gove because there is very little evidence I can find to undermine the wide consensus that he has not come to grips with any difficult education issues at all. As with Gove I don’t have much time for some of the usual criticisms. Those who think Twigg could have proposed an all out war on choice and diversity (closing grammar schools, nationalising academies, banning private schools) are simply repeating slogans from another era, not serious policies compatible with getting elected to government. I won’t condemn Stephen Twigg for not being Roy Hattersley. Nor do I have much sympathy for the idea that because he is saying nothing about that agenda then he is saying nothing at all. There is more of a problem when he speaks than when he doesn’t. Also, as with Gove, I have little time for criticism about style, personality or the details of the policy-making process. If Twigg has made little impact, I think it has more to do with the message than the man.
My rough summary of Twigg’s position is that he opposes Gove where Gove is right, but agrees with him where he is wrong. The core problem, and this is one which will leave Labour vulnerable over education, is that he is quite happy to join with the education establishment and support dumbing-down. A couple of examples stand out on this. Firstly, he signed a letter to the Guardian denying the effectiveness of phonics co-signed with a number of prominent phonics denialists, including the Socialist Workers Party’s Michael Rosen who has famously described phonics as “barking at print”. Secondly, he wrote an article, again for the Guardian, after the English GCSE farrago attacking Gove for not overruling the exam regulator and agreeing with the headteachers who were lobbying to raise the GCSE pass rate by 10% and let about three quarters of school leavers have a grade C in English, effectively making the qualification worthless as a means of distinguishing between the literate and illiterate.
Both of these actions show a man who is willing to ignore the evidence, and the agenda of his allies, as long as he gets to make an attack on his opposite number. Labour has always had trouble over phonics simply because they tend not to believe that figures in the educational establishment would actually leave children illiterate over a point of ideological dogma. Attempts by the last Labour government to encourage evidence-based teaching of reading were twice derailed by phonics denialists. Despite a capacity to make speeches about looking to experts and to evidence, and the importance of bipartisanship, Twigg has attacked Gove in the one area where he is simply letting evidence count for more than a belief in magic and where, in my view, he is most likely to make a real difference to children’s opportunities. As for supporting the regrading lobby, again the evidence is overwhelming and a read through the court judgement that settled the question indicates again that Twigg is not willing to let facts or details get in the way of partisan politics. In this case though, it is not simply his judgement about educational matters that looks weak, but his political judgement too. Labour’s failure in government to prevent grade inflation is something that even Twigg has admitted happened, so why support further grade inflation? Effectively Twigg has conceded that Labour got something wrong, but publicly shown that if given responsibility for education, he would continue to get it wrong in exactly the same way.
Now, these errors of judgement would be bad enough if they were isolated mistakes made despite a generally sensible approach to education. Unfortunately these snippets seem entirely consistent with Twigg’s general stance. He’s also been against the Ebacc and sniffy about academic subjects, favouring vocational options without confronting the difficult questions of who exactly should take them or why. While people obsess with the minutiae of structures, Twigg is setting out an agenda which would ensure that the worst aspect of our system, the low expectations in our comprehensives, becomes worse. Too often he sounds like he is defending the last Labour government’s education policy rather than setting out what the next one would do. Unfortunately, the last Labour government lost all direction on education policy after 2001, and so Twigg seems to be looking at a period of exceptional drift and weakness as if it was an alternative to a very assertive secretary of state who is willing to talk about standards in schools. Wasting time on the criticisms already being put forward by the education establishment, and unable to imagine a new direction has left Twigg with little to say of any interest. Gove’s greatest failure is probably that he hasn’t undone the harm of the previous nine years (such as the behaviour of OFSTED and the bureaucracy of performance management) yet Twigg can never make that attack. Too often Gove is left free to act like he speaks for the opposition, attacking the status quo and those in charge of education, while the man whose job it actually is to oppose, defends years of failure and demands that it be allowed to continue.
Update 17/8/2013 (am): Since writing this I have discovered that Michael Rosen has discontinued his involvement with the SWP and announced it on a blog 4 weeks ago. I haven’t changed the text above as, at the time of the letter above, he would still have been directly involved.
Update 17/8/2013 (pm): Following some argument on Twitter with @educationlabour I will clarify here that when I say that Twigg’s letter “den[ied] the effectiveness of phonics” I mean exactly that. It suggested that other methods, presumably the crank methods of the co-signatories, should be used as well and that the phonics check would confuse children, something unlikely to happen if they had been taught phonics effectively. I am not claiming that Stephen Twigg has ever said he is against phonics. Indeed, it is normal for even the most ferocious phonics denialists (some of whom signed that letter) to claim that they are “not against phonics”, just as advocates of homeopathy and other magic often claim that they are providing a “complement” rather than a replacement for conventional medicine.