Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West and Hessle
Emma Hardy may be a relative newbie in Parliament, but she’s a bit of a trendsetter.
Last May she launched the all-party parliamentary group on oracy. By January Nick Gibb, the schools minister, was announcing that educational traditionalists should claim oracy for themselves.
“He’s going to be copying everything I say now. What can I say? We agree on so much,” the Labour MP says with a laugh over a salad served on a disposable plate.
We’re in the one cafe in Portcullis House that’s open over the Easter recess. The restaurant in the main atrium is closed for routine maintenance and Bellamy’s lunch buffet is doing a roaring trade, although its broken dishwasher is causing a few problems.
Michael Gove made me what I am today
No one is supposed to be here. Hardy would usually be in her home constituency with her two young daughters, Olivia and Isabel, but instead she and hundreds of others are stuck in Brexit limbo – milling around Parliament like teachers on results day, exuding a mix of uncertainty, anticipation and holiday fever.
If I imagined Hardy’s mind would be wandering off towards the prime minister’s negotiations in Berlin, however, I couldn’t be more wrong. The former primary teacher wants to talk about “anything other than Brexit”.
So could oracy be one of the few education topics that manages to unite politicians cross-party and educationists across the prog-trad divide?
“I do think it’s hopeful that [Gibb] sees it,” she says, “but I worry that he’s saying it’s important because he wants to teach everyone the rules of debating, rather than help people to find their voices.”
For Hardy – who worked for the National Union of Teachers for two years – oracy is about more than the “purposeful, constructive discussion that enhances understanding” that Gibb referred to in a speech to the conference run by the traditionalist campaign group Parents and Teachers for Excellence. Rather, it’s about enabling children, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, to express themselves.
“We know the frustration when you don’t feel you’re being listened to, you don’t feel people understand you, so why are we not prioritising this?” To underline her point, she cites the figure from the Prison Reform Trust that 60 per cent of people in jail have communication difficulties.
“While Nick Gibb’s banging on about 95 per cent of children getting the EBacc, maybe he’s got his priorities a bit wrong. You can’t get 95 per cent of a population to fit into one model, that just isn’t going to happen. Maybe we should be talking a little bit more about teaching tolerance, teaching mutual respect.
“What if we as a society just got people to talk about what kind of citizens we want to create from our school system – and work our way back from that. Would we design the system we have now?”
One thing she would like every school pupil to learn, is “how to disagree without being disagreeable”.
It was Michael Gove, the former education secretary, who made Hardy what she is today, she told the online TV channel Core Politics when she took up her seat. “He was the fuel behind me. He created me. I was a primary teacher, I didn’t like what he’d done in education, and I slowly worked my way up to where I could be in a position to tell him that face to face.”
Her maiden speech to the Commons in July 2017 linked “high-stakes accountability” and the education assessment system to worsening mental health in schools. It’s still high on her priority list, although she’s clearer about what she doesn’t want, rather than what she does.
“If you say to a school, ‘The only thing I’m going to judge you on is what results your children get at the end’, then don’t be surprised when you see off-rolling and increased exclusions,” she says.
But she wouldn’t scrap regulation altogether. “Obviously there has to be some accountability and obviously I wouldn’t ever advocate for a system when people go, ‘Just trust teachers!’”
Although unconvinced that Ofsted is accurately able to judge the quality of a school, she won’t be pinned down on what kind of regulation should be in place, save to mention an “area-based accountability system” – a phrase also used by Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.
What she’d definitely like to see is a revival of local authority school improvement services, acting as the “critical friend” to whom school leaders can honestly say what they are struggling with, and receive support.
But should politicians not be wary of introducing more changes?
“You say they want everything to stay as it is, but that only really works if you said, ‘And we have record numbers of retention and people are loving the profession and morale has never been so high.’ The fact is morale is really low and teachers are leaving, so I think there is an appetite for change.”
While Hardy’s views run counter to government policy on many education topics, the education select committee, chaired by Tory Robert Halfon, is one place where there seems to be little disagreement.
“Completely!” Hardy agrees. “I mean, we’ve solved Brexit on that. We’ve got Lucy Powell and Robert Halfon, who didn’t really know each other before, as two of the main architects behind Brexit 2.0. Because they’ve developed such a strong bond from working on the select committee together.”
Some Labour committee members affectionately gave William Wragg, a Conservative MP, the moniker “comrade Will” after he finally advocated for more funding
for schools, Hardy says. “He was like, ‘I don’t think so’.”
On most education topics, she speaks convincingly, with common sense. On exclusions, she understands what it’s like to have a disruptive child in class, but is keen to talk about how schools need additional funding and trained counsellors to intervene earlier.
She wants to drop the “obsession” with grading schools, and instead focus on developing teachers. “We should talk instead about what makes a difference: all the wrap-around care and support for families and social services work in schools – all those things that we know work. Early intervention. How in each school can they encourage each teacher to be the best they can.”
So does she want to be involved in giving shape to Labour’s nebulous National Education Service? What are her career ambitions?
“Blimey. Survive, I think!
We should talk more about teaching tolerance, teaching mutual respect
“It sounds lame, but I have young children. I look at how much time Angela Rayner [the shadow education secretary] puts in – weekends away, every Friday doing work, having to be available because she’s on the front bench. I mean it is a huge, huge, commitment, whereas I’m very happy on the select committee, and, as a new MP, I’ve got all my constituency responsibilities.
“Also I couldn’t go home on a Thursday if I was on the front bench. I need to focus on my constituency and doing education while I’ve got my family. That’s enough.”
Can this harbinger of the schools minister’s passions tell me what he might be waxing lyrical about next?
“Poetry!” exclaims Hardy. Hot from the success of the oracy APPG, Hardy has agreed to chair another one. Classic poetry, spoken word, performance poetry – the whole gamut. “I thought it was a lovely idea, poets come and read poems,” she says, with obvious delight. A welcome distraction from the Brexit debacle, one would imagine.