Education questions is always interesting in the sense that the main players are quite energetic and keen for debate and there is a genuine divide now between the two main parties (and indeed within the Coalition). But today’s session was interesting in the sense that a grandmother describes a Christmas present they don’t quite understand as ‘interesting’ because Tristram Hunt used his slot to grill the Education Secretary about a health issue.
‘More and more research shows the importance of early years development in a child’s education. The Labour party Sure Start programme was focused on supporting those vital infant years, a policy of prevention rather than cure. We know Mr Speaker that the Tories do not support Sure Start but in 2010 the Secretary of State pledged to create 4,200 new health visitors. Can he now tell the House just how far he is off meeting this target?’
Gove replied that he supported Sure Start but that health visitors were a matter for the Secretary of State for Health. But Hunt pressed on. He said:
‘Mr Speaker, that is exactly the problem with this government. No cross-departmental thinking about having health visitors focus on early years development.’
Tory MPs were honking with laughter at this point. Hunt continued, telling the Commons that ‘we on this side of the House think that the early years are vitally important’. ‘So is the government’s commitment to 4,200 new health visitors going to be matched this parliament?’ he asked.
Gove sprang back up to the despatch box and said:
‘The early years are indeed very important: that’s when children often learn to spell and it’s important that the Secretary of State tells the different between education – E-D-U-C-A-T-I-O-N – and health – H-E-A-L-T-H – responsibility for health visitors, like responsibility for doctors and nurses is for the Secretary of State for Health and I suggest that he address those questions to my right honourable friend.’
Gove later joked that Hunt couldn’t think of any interesting questions on education so was instead asking questions about health. So what’s going on here? Gove gave an interview to Mumsnet in April 2010 in which he explained that the Conservatives wanted to increase the number of health visitors by 4,200, and repeated that pledge once in government in a letter to headteachers and governors in December 2010.
Hunt wants to argue that Gove and co are not interested in the early years just as he has been arguing for a while that Gove isn’t interested in proper vocational eduction. Given the number of times the Education Secretary has referred to this pledge himself, it wasn’t unreasonable for his shadow to raise the issue, but it didn’t quite work because Gove had a good put down, and Hunt a poor point when he tried to suggest that one department not wanting to encroach on another’s turf is ‘exactly the problem with this government’. It’s strange, too, because there are now many clear dividing lines between Labour and the Tories on education, whether that’s because Gove pulled the pegs out of his Big Tent, or Labour strolled out of its own accord.
Tristram Hunt, Liz Truss, Alison Wolf, Toby Young and more will be speaking at The Spectator’s annual schools conference ‘How British schools can lead the world’ on 3 April 2014 in Central London. Click here to find out more.