Where yesterday’s conference speeches from shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt felt like an imbalanced half of a football game; today felt like his comeback tour.

In a speech and question session at the NASUWT union fringe Tristram Hunt came out fighting – defending Labour’s record on sponsored academies and outing problems with Ofsted.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Knowing the main speeches had finished, education fringe events earlier in the day focused on issues avoided in yesterday’s main-stage speech.

Teacher workload and the raising of the retirement age were both mentioned in a joint ATL and NUT union event. “You have a right not to be permanently exhausted, you have a right to a weekend, you have a right to a hobby!” said Mary Bousted – general secretary of ATL – to much applause.

Raising concerns about Labour’s plan to relicense teachers every five years, Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said that the government would only get agreement if they offered teachers a right to guaranteed continuing professional development (CPD) hours and sabbaticals in return.

Though these issues were important, however, they still felt like tip-toeing round enormous policy elephants. Questions of Labour’s plans for academies, free schools and the curriculum hung in the air.

But only until 6pm.

Speaking at the NASUWT fringe event, Tristram Hunt followed a stats-packed speech by Chris Keates, in which she argued that 40 per cent of newly qualified teachers were employed on temporary contracts and applications to study teaching qualifications were down 10 per cent. The prior government were entirely to blame, she said.

With a crowd primed in this way, the easiest thing for Hunt to do would have been promising to undo everything of the last four years. And yet, he resisted.

“On the one hand when I go around school they quite rightly say we have had all these relentless changes and we want you to change this and this back, and on the other hand they say we want a period of stability. We are falling on the side of having a period of stability so teachers can have a period of reflection and work out what is their capacity.”

I will not be re-writing the history curriculum over a wet weekend

This does not mean a Labour government would bring no change. A-level decoupling would be cancelled immediately he said. However, the curriculum would say the same. “I will not be re-writing the history curriculum over a wet weekend,” quipped Hunt. “Much as I might like to.”

He then mentioned possible reform of the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) and the school’s inspectorate, Ofsted.

“I have had Ofsted inspectors tell me that they themselves have come under pressure to deliver certain results in order to academise those schools. That should not be the function or job of a inspector – I am very, very clear on that.” Hunt renewed his vow to reform, though not abolish, the inspectorate.

On free schools and academies he was equally clear. “Yes, we are going to end the free school programme – or at least discontinue it. We are not going to close those already open or in the pipeline.”

Instead, Labour would take a ‘value neutral’ approach to school structure. Opening new schools via local Directors of School Standards. Local authorities would be allowed to compete with academy chains to open the schools via a transparent process including public consultation.

But despite the crowd being schools-heavy in their questioning, Hunt was clear that his ‘day one’ priority was technical and vocational education, with a white paper “ready to go” on the topic if Labour took power.

“[Vocational education] is the historical lacunae in our schooling and we will put it right” he said.

The room full of delegates left the event hoping, and praying, that he is correct.

 

Laura McInerney is now the Editor of Schools Week (formerly Academies Week)