What a lot of fun Michael Gove is having with Stephen Twigg’s latest policy pronouncements. The Education Secretary has written a fabulously long letter to his Labour shadow following up on Monday’s speech with 36 questions. He charmingly writes:
‘I am sure your speech was the result of a well-thought-through reflection on schools policy and all of the above questions were considered, and fully addressed, in preparation for your announcement and so you will be able to reply promptly and put to rest the idea, which more and more people are regrettably succumbing to, that Labour schools policy is a confusing, uncertain and incoherent assemblage of sops to the trades unions and local authorities which reflects poorly on the intellectual rigour and moral courage of the current Labour frontbench in comparison with all previous Oppositions, confirms the risible weakness of the Labour leadership in the face of vested interests, and risks undermining the hard work of all those great teachers who are driving up standards in schools today.’
That exhaustingly long paragraph (all one sentence) comes at the end of the letter, which asks questions designed to trip up Twigg about his Labour colleagues who have worked in schools without teaching qualifications, about whether his plans to sack unqualified teachers met EU law and the Human Rights Act, and what he really thinks about school choice. You can read it in full here.
Some of the questions will be difficult for Labour to answer until the conclusion of David Blunkett’s review of school supervision, as Gove drills down into a great deal of detail about the freedoms that free schools and academies might lose if they were brought under local authority supervision.
Others are part of a fightback on the issue that Labour feels most confident on: unqualified teachers. The party thinks that polling showing parents hate the idea of their children being taught by untrained staff means Twigg is safe to oppose the measure, which has offended the teaching unions no end. But it is an easy argument for the Tories to win, given many leading independent schools employ staff without qualified teacher status. Academy heads will also be able to point to gifted staff in their schools who would lose their jobs under Labour based on their failure to tick one box, rather than their prowess in the classroom.
But this letter feeds into the attack line that the Tories are focusing on – and that we saw deployed at Prime Minister’s Questions today – that the Labour party is weak and dithering over policy, a ‘blancmange in a hurricane’, as Gove himself put it.
UPDATE, 16.45: When it comes to letter-writing, though, Twigg is no blancmange. His reply to Gove is brilliant. He writes:
Thank you for your 1300-word letter.
I was very interested to hear, during Prime Minister’s Questions earlier today, the Prime Minister defending the Government’s decision to allow unqualified teachers to teach in classrooms.
I am delighted to see the attention you are paying to Labour party policy but might I suggest focusing more attention on your own policies?
With a primary places crisis, over 5000 unqualified teachers in academies and Free Schools, a fall in the number of apprenticeships for 16-18 year olds, youth unemployment at almost a million, a looming teacher shortage, and a new curriculum rejected by employers and teachers, surely your time would be better spent addressing these issues rather than being a pigeon carrier for Lynton Crosby’s gimmicks?
I fear, however, that you will continue to while away the hours sending letters to me, writing forewords to the Bible and dreaming up new names for GCSEs.
UPDATE II, 18.10: These letters have legs. We may need to set up a Gove vs Twigg liveblog. In the meantime, here’s Gove’s response:
Thank you for your response to my letter.
You suggested I should spend more time attending to the government’s education policies. Since the general election we have:
· Opened 81 free schools and approved 211 more, to provide 130,000 extra places once they are full.
· Increased the number of sponsored academies from 203 to 699.
· Allowed all schools to convert to Academy status – an option 2,225 schools have taken so far, so that a majority of secondary schools are now academies.
· Opened 16 Studio Schools and approved 28 more.
· Drafted a new National Curriculum that will be taught in schools from September 2014.
· Given all schools freedom over the length of the school day.
· Given teachers the power to search pupils without consent for banned items.
· Given heads the final say on exclusions by removing the rights of appeals panels to overturn their decisions.
· Given teachers the power to enforce same-day detentions.
· Increased fines for truancy.
· Set out plans for more rigorous GCSEs that will be taught from September 2015.
· Introduced the English Baccalaureate which has led to a doubling in the percentage of pupils studying an academic core at GCSE.
· Enlisted the Russell Group to design new A-levels.
· Restored marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in GCSEs, which your government abolished.
· Scrapped excessive modules, coursework and controlled assessment.
· Commissioned the Wolf Report into vocational education and implemented its findings in full.
· Ensured only high quality vocational qualifications that lead to employment and further study count in performance tables.
· Ensured all young people who fail to get a C in English or Maths GCSE carry on studying those subjects to 18.
· Introduced a £2.5 billion pupil premium to target funding at those most in need.
· Scrapped eight education quangos.
· Cut bureaucratic guidance to schools by three quarters.
· Announced that, from this September, rigid pay-scales, which led to automatic pay rises regardless of performance and prevented heads from rewarding great teachers, will be abolished.
· Introduced £20,000 bursaries to attract top graduates in maths and science to teaching.
· Encouraged a record number of top graduates to apply to become teachers.
· Expanded Teach First, with quadruple the number of places on the scheme by 2015-16.
· Moved teacher training out of lecture halls and into classrooms through the introduction of Teaching Schools and School Direct.
· More than doubled funding for extra school places to £5 billion to deal with the shortage of primary places that is the direct result of the last government’s failures to control immigration and plan for a rising school population.
· Scrapped the wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme which you have admitted squandered billions of pounds.
· Published more data on school performance than ever before, including data on how many children from each school get to a top university – data kept hidden by the last government.
Of course there is plenty more to do to raise standards, but I hope this reassures you about the progress this government has made on education policy.
Perhaps you could now set out the progress the Labour party has made on education policy since the general election by answering the questions I put to you earlier?