As part of Ed Miliband’s modestly-titled plan to ‘rebuild the middle class’, shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt this week set out Labour’s new policy for raising standards of teaching. A Labour Government elected in 2015, he announced, would introduce a system of licensing for teachers, requiring them to ‘undertake regular professional development throughout their careers in order to keep their skills and knowledge up to date’. From the party that brought you a quality control regime that saw just 17 teachers struck off during 13 years in government, this latest wheeze, we are asked to believe, will help deliver ’a world class teacher in every classroom’.
Teachers were quick to point out professional development already happens in schools as part of performance management, while they already face examination of their competence from one government agency, Ofsted. Not that Labour’s thinking behind the new policy had probably got as far as to check what is actually happening in schools. As Hunt cheerfully admitted, Labour has yet to work out such minor details such as what the criteria should be for obtaining a teaching licence and what kind of professional development actually works (surely a fairly fundamental question if you’re arguing that professional development is crucial to raising standards of teaching), let alone ‘how best to raise the standard of professional development on offer’ and ‘the mechanisms for implementation’, i.e. how much the new policy will cost, how many thousands of bureaucrats it will take to administer, and how many teachers it is estimated will fail to keep their licence (if any).
It is not only these questions (and there are more, just read his speech on Wednesday) that remain unanswered. Hunt’s latest policy announcement comes just over 3 months to the day since I challenged him publicly to clarify some of the basic details about Labour’s policy on free schools, a challenge to which Hunt has failed to respond. As Coffee House readers will recall, on becoming shadow Education Secretary, Hunt purported to abandon his previous opposition to free schools and promised to keep all the ‘good’ ones open. I asked Hunt to define what he considers to be a ‘good’ free school and how many of the current crop of free schools does he consider ‘good’? No answer. How long would Labour give free schools to prove themselves good before closing them down? No answer. Why does he propose to restrict the opening of new free schools only to parts of the country where there is a shortage of places, denying the same choice to parents in areas where the schools are mediocre or poor? No answer.
These questions came on top even more serious ones about the threat a Labour government in 2015 would pose to free schools. As part of a determined effort to use planning regulations to stop a massively oversubscribed school in my constituency from opening a second site under the free schools programme, my local Labour opponent blabbed about the existence of a secret review the party is holding into free schools in ‘unsuitable’ or ‘inappropriate’ buildings, with the aim of investigating ‘ways to move children out of inappropriate free schools’. I gently enquired of Hunt and his deputy, Kevin Brennan, how many of the 130,000 children in the free schools that are open or currently planned they anticipated would be affected by the tightening of the regulations, and whether a Labour government would help the schools find alternative accommodation rather than closing them down and forcing their pupils to move schools midway through their education. No answer.
Tristram Hunt needs to pause his middle-class charm offensive and do some homework so he can start to provide basic answers about the details of Labour’s education policy. Even the Guardian was provoked this week to wonder ‘how much substance lies behind’ one of his latest policy announcements. I’m sure everyone would agree with the principle that teachers should not be allowed to stand up in front of a classroom and wing it, without having proper knowledge of what they’re trying to get across. But nor is this acceptable conduct from the man who wants to become Education Secretary next year. It’s a good job for Tristram Hunt just now that you don’t need a licence to be in the Shadow Cabinet.
Rob Wilson is MP for Reading East. Follow him on Twitter @RobWilson_RDG