Spot The Difference Part 3

July 22, 2014

I’ve commented previously on the difference in Tristram Hunt’s views before and after he became part of Labour’s education team. So far I’ve commented on:

However, these are pretty small issues compared with the one that most often leads middle class Labour politicians to fail their own supporters. This is the issue of whether working class kids should aspire to the same levels of academic achievement as middle class kids, or whether other people’s children need to take a “non-academic” route, perhaps one that involves working with their hands.

On this issue, Tristram used to sound almost Gove-like in his views. From “The forward march of Labour restarted?” in November 2011:

What then are the contemporary sociological forces that the left needs to understand and seek to grasp? … I would highlight four in particular… [the] [t]hird [is]: the crisis of educational attainment. Despite major strides in improving educational standards after 1997, we cannot be satisfied by Britain’s slide down the international rankings. In 2000, British 15-year-olds ranked fourth in science, seventh in reading and eighth in mathematics. By 2009, those rankings had slumped to 16th, 25th and 28th respectively. Unsurprisingly, this crisis is most pronounced among those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2010, only 16 per cent of pupils achieved a grade C or above in the subjects that will become the English baccalaureate. For children eligible for free school meals, this figure falls to a staggering 4 per cent (House of Commons 2011). This could have major long-term implications for the Labour movement. It is not hard to see how a lack of educational attainment could combine with the decline in living standards and the decline of skilled or semi-skilled manual work to form a toxic cocktail of entrenched disadvantage.

So back then he thought that it was a “crisis” that more students, particularly FSM students, didn’t study Ebacc subjects and a decline in the importance of manual work made neglecting this problem a particularly great risk.

However, the Tristram Hunt of 2014 has a completely different attitude to the importance of academic qualifications and the importance of manual work. From a local newspaper article entitled “Shadow education minister Tristram Hunt: It’s vocation, vocation, vocation for Labour” in May 2014:

Mr Hunt, who is MP for Stoke on Trent, believes many of the region’s young people will benefit from a more hands-on approach.

He told The Journal: “One thing Labour would change quickly is the current lack of focus on technical and vocational education. That means decent apprenticeships and a more flexible curriculum that suits the needs of each region and its young people going forward…

“I think a lot of young people begin to get bored by their learning environment and that is why a one-size-fits-all curriculum simply doesn’t work from region to region. We need to make education relevant and interesting. It’s about raising young people’s aspirations, not putting them off.”

Labour’s reforms would also involve greater responsibility being placed on schools to track what their pupils go on to do, whether it be further education, training or work.

Schools that fail to ensure pupils progress in this way would face losing funding, with the money used to transform careers guidance in those schools and going to local employers to develop partnership programmes offering structured careers advice…

He said the proposals would address the talents of the “forgotten 50%” of young people who want to pursue vocational routes through education.

And perhaps even more disturbingly in an interview in the Guardian last month:

So we do talk for a while about vocational and technical education, where Labour proposes “a revolution in apprenticeships, putting business in the driving seat” and new Institutes of Technical Education to provide “gold-standard delivery” of a proposed technical baccalaureate. The latter would be one of two optional streams – the other would be a general (presumably mainly academic) baccalaureate _ within a national baccalaureate for 14- to 19-year-olds.

Would these supersede GCSEs and A-levels, as many teachers wish? Hunt replies – to my complete lack of surprise – that they wouldn’t. “But GCSEs and A-levels won’t be the be-all and end-all. We’re trying to get away from the exam factory model.” He explains that the new Bacc will have four components: the established exams, including those that lead to vocational qualifications; an extended project; maths and English for all; and “personal development skills”

There’s something of a myth that Hunt has done badly as shadow education secretary because he has failed to disagree with the Tories enough. This is mistaken. When it comes to the key controversy of recent years, the debate over the idea that an academic education is the best option for all children, Hunt has not just disagreed with the Tories, he’s disagreed with himself. Is Labour really going to go into a general election telling aspirational working class parents that Labour’s top educational priorities in government will be concentrating resources on non-academic options for children who are “bored by their learning environment” and on assessing “personal development skills”? I could see this happening when Stephen Twigg was shadow education secretary, but Hunt is capable of so much more if he was just encouraged to follow the convictions he held when he got the job.


  1. Perhaps we need to start thinking about balance in education. Why are we worshipping the academic as if practical competence has no value? Part of the problem is we have too many non-producers. The wealthiest people are not all academics. University professors are no happier or wealthier than small business entrepreneurs as far as I can see. Sure you need good basic skills in numeracy and literacy for just about everything these days but beyond that most of it is down to attitude, motivation and making good decisions most of which have little to do with academic learning. So yes get all working class kids to aspire to academic excellence but at the same time get all middle class kids to prove their practical competence too. ALL kids should have a balance of academic and practical education and get rid of this out of date reinforcement of divisions.

    • Any lingering sympathy I might have had for vocational education disappeared completely after attending a conference chaired by Polly Toynbee. It’s not that practical skills aren’t worth having–indeed, the disappearance of ‘Craft’ from the Design and Technology syllabus conveyed the message that working with one’s hands is for losers. But Craft had to go–H&S decreed that today’s kids were too precious to be trusted with sharp tools. It also got rid of shop teachers, who were always a bit below the salt.

      So long as we view schooling as a credentialing system, we will inevitably be faced with demands for BTechs and No Value Qualifications. As Alison Wolf explained, the needs of commerce and industry change so fast that most vocational qualifications are obsolete before they are launched. In Germany, all vocational training is delivered on the job: in school, all pupils study an academic curriculum.

      It’s a pity Gove didn’t get rid of post-16 vocational qualifications altogether, but I suppose we should be thankful that cynical heads can no longer massage their standing in the league tables by searching out the most brain-dead options available and counting them as the equivalent of up to 4 (relatively) honest GCSEs.

      By all means let’s have some practical activities in school. Let’s start by replacing the dreadful Food Tech syllabus with good honest cooking. A spot of woodworking or gardening might save our kids a lot of money when they get a home of their own (probably in their 50s), as well as teaching them the joys of creating something useful with their own hands. But this should be for all pupils, not just those who are judged to have limited academic potential. I worked in the building trades for 25 years before becoming an academic, and I still have a large well-equipped shop that keeps me sane after reading too many papers by educationalists. I’ve also been in the TA, and taught in a comprehensive. I can assure you that I’ve had as many intelligent conversations with private soldiers and brickies as I’ve had in the staff rooms of our schools. There’s a good quote from the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist to the effect that our intellectual heritage belongs to us all. Schools that fail to teach some of our children about it because they deemed incapable are exactly the sort of middle-class snobs that Blue Labour have fingered.

  2. There’s something that doesn’t ring completely true here. Various schools that I taught at offered vocational alternatives post-14. The parental complaint was not from those pupils getting the college time, it was from the others who thought their kids in normal mainstream were missing out.
    Whilst there were problems with the approach (not least the teaching standards of partner providers) it did seem like a essentially positive experience for pupils that were not previously thriving. It often encouraged these pupils to have higher aspirations on the 4 days per week they attended ‘academic’ classes.
    There is an inherent problem with the academic subject set-up and that is that a good proportion of kids will always get the type of result that is essentially worthless going forwards.

  3. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. “I think a lot of young people begin to get bored by their learning environment and that is why a one-size-fits-all curriculum simply doesn’t work from region to region.”
    “Region to region”!?

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