Tristram Hunt: ASCL Speech Full Text

Tristram Hunt spoke at the ASCL Conference in London today.

This is the full text from the planned speech.



Thank you.

It is a tremendous pleasure to be here today at ‘Trust to Transform.’

A strapline which perfectly encapsulates the approach the Labour Party will take to English education’s next reform chapter.

As well as pithily summarising the ethos of your powerful Blueprint for a Self-Improving Education System.

A document that I am convinced will command broad-based support across our vibrant, if not altogether harmonious, education sector.

Yet more important is what that wording suggests;

the teasing hint at the possibilities before us if we could only find the courage to try something new.

Ladies and Gentleman, my argument today is very simple: we must transform.

And we must trust.

Because a powerful convergence of social, economic and technological forces are creating huge challenges for our future prosperity that education can no longer ignore.

We find ourselves at a unique and incredibly fragile moment in our economic history.

With technology and globalisation combining to ferment a ‘third’ industrial revolution.

Creating a digitally enhanced brave new world filled both with enormous challenges and opportunities.

On one hand you have John Maynard Keynes’s “technological unemployment” – with one particularly gloomy Oxford University analysis suggesting 35 per cent of existing British jobs could disappear to automation over the coming decades.

On the other you have the democratic promise of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s “this is for everyone” vision.

Where enterprise, creativity and idea becomes the true currency of opportunity.

As opposed to class, identity, power, wealth or status.

Ladies and Gentleman – I am an unabashed optimist.

The future should always dare us to dream.

To my mind, the energy provided by the digital revolution makes this one of the most exciting times to be involved in English education for decades.

I sense it when I visit schools – an unmistakable and incredible sense of possibility, social entrepreneurship and potential.

Because at every school and college I visit I meet young people who are confident, determined and resilient – young people who are bursting with ideas about how they contribute and make a difference.

It is very simple: Britain can only succeed when our young people succeed.

Which means education must also serve as a strategy for national economic renewal;

that our country’s future prosperity depends on unlocking our education system’s hidden potential.

It is that force which I would suggest drives our system’s ‘high stakes’ nature.

And it is not an inconsiderable concern.

According to a 2012 report by McKinsey’s, come the next general election there will be 100m low skill jobs the global economy will simply no longer require.

In contrast, however, there will be a 40m global shortage of high skilled workers.

But this is where I would agree with the Blueprint that we need an element of trust.

To reject an affliction which seems to bedevil Westminster culture.

I call it the cult of the big reformer.

A sort of alpha male compulsion to see public policy through the prism of your ‘reforming legacy’.

But you only have to see how social media has sent a shockwave through the teaching profession and its conversation about a new College of Teaching, to see how profoundly out of date this attitude really is.

The ASCL Blueprint is absolutely right – the days of education by diktat must come to an end.

More than ever before change in education must come from the bottom-up.

Through decentralisation.

Through devolving power.

Through giving teachers and school leaders the freedom to deliver the exciting education that awakens a passion for life and learning within our children.

That is first and foremost a challenge for me to let go.

But it is also a challenge for you to step up.

Reclaim the tools.

Create the conditions for change.

If you believe there is something wrong with the system – develop the better alternative.



For this truly is the wonderful thing about the digital revolution.

It democratises power.

It stimulates innovation.

Weakens bureaucratic control.

And provides new platform for articulating an alternative.

Just look at how this union, alongside colleagues from the NAHT and United Learning, developed a new parent-focused approach to school performance levels;

How the Head-Teachers Roundtable has developed a genuine baccalaureate curriculum framework for upper secondary pupils.

There is the Teacher Development Trust on CPD;

the College of Teaching on professional standards…

…would any of this have happened without the catalysing and galvanising effect of social media and digital technology?


But I don’t think anybody here would argue with me if I suggested we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what we could achieve.

3D printing;

Augmented reality;



Big data;

Interactive textbooks;

Adaptive learning software;

The technology is truly remarkable.


So whilst I know it has been prematurely prophesied many times before…

I do believe this is finally the moment when technology changes the way teachers carry out their craft.

We will see schools where every lesson can be simultaneously tailored to the needs of each individual pupil;

schools where data about the effectiveness of different pedagogies can be shared with teachers in real time;

and schools where software has liberated teachers from the yoke of marking exercise books.

However, the needs of the economy will dictate a rebalancing of what we teach as well as how we teach it.

After all, a creative age demands more creativity.

A digital economy demands advanced digital skills such as coding and big data analytics;

And a world class STEM sector demands we finally consign our deeply engrained cultural snobbery towards technical education to the dustbin of history.

But as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has argued – our schools system must also “prepare young people for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.”

And that means creating a system that is more responsive, flexible and, above all innovative than ever before.

Of course we need to redouble our efforts to lift up failing schools and tackle poor performance wherever it lies too.


But given the high and increasing price of failure – reimagining our industrial model of education could represent the only way we can secure our children’s prosperity.

Therefore, if we want to become a world class economy that uses the talents of all, then we have to give school innovation equal status alongside school improvement.

This is the next stage in our good to great evolution.

So whilst I don’t want to shatter a consensus before it’s even formed – I do hope that the next ASCL Blueprint might also consider how to create the self-innovating school system.



However, if the digital revolution is the pull factor for school innovation then I’m afraid there is a push factor equally as strong.

The existing model of school improvement in this country is creaking at the seams.

Do not get me wrong: I know there are amazing schools, doing extraordinary things the length and breadth of the country.

And I know that inspiring teachers and dedicated school leaders work unbelievably hard to give our children the best possible start in life.

However, as John Cridland, Director General of the CBI, puts it bluntly:

“At the moment we have a system almost exclusively focused on exam results and a floor standard which allows up to 40 per cent of a school’s pupils to fail.”

Just as devastating – the OECD’s report into adult skills showed that, almost uniquely, young people in England have poorer levels of literacy and numeracy when compared to their older contemporaries.

The one great insight we should never cast aside is that children lives are ruined by low expectations.

That poverty of ambition is every bit as damaging as poverty of circumstance.

We need to be frank and apply that lesson to ourselves.

Because heads are doing great work despite the system, rather than because of it.

Take this note I received from a brilliant head-teacher in Birmingham.

A headteacher’s most common advice in the last 3 years has been:

  • Make sure the kids are doing iGCSE English;
  • Narrow your curriculum at KS4 to study the easiest / most data valuable courses;
  • Focus on Progress 8 and the three buckets;
  • Put your intervention resources in Year 11 and on thoise students on the cusp of passing and show compassionate realism with those who have no chance of passing.

His frustration was evident.

Similarly, an East London head-teacher told me last month that when he meets his peers the chatter is always about this or that target.

How to raise standards in this subject by half a level; in that cohort by five per cent.

This was by no means a criticism – he suffered the effects of high stakes pressure every bit as much I am sure many of you do likewise.

He, like me, believed in transparent pupil data;

believed in intelligent accountability;

believed in minimum standards;

believed too that an interventionist inspectorate tasked with rooting out underperformance is absolutely vital for social justice.

But his argument was that somehow the cumulative effect of all this had begun to choke something precious.

It’s as if, he said, we have buried the joy, wonder and beauty of schooling beneath an avalanche of bureaucracy.

My fear is that he could be right.

We need to reclaim our higher aspirations.

to reconnect ourselves with what education is and should be about;

to respect and cherish the true purpose of schooling.

About making sure every child learns something new and exciting every day.

About young people creating beautiful pieces of work and acquiring an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

And about nurturing those broader human attributes – the character, resilience, confidence, grit and emotional wellbeing.

Because the idea that our children’s potential can be fulfilled if we just raise the targets, stamp our feet and demand one more heave, is now, surely, approaching its end stages.

As Sir Michael Barber admits, even in the top-performing systems in the world this model of school improvement has hit its ‘performance ceiling’.


So we simply have to change;

To chart a course away – carefully, slowly, consensually – from the narrow, ‘exam factory’ vision of recent years.

As the Blueprint points out via that wonderful Joel Klein quote:

“You can mandate adequacy. You cannot mandate greatness. It has to be unleashed.

Not least because that is what this century’s economy demands.  The conundrum of education policy is surely this: how do we deliver the foundational basics in a mass education system whilst also inculcating the creativity, innovation, and disruption which are the 21st century skills we need.



England’s demographic surge affords us a tremendous opportunity to do something different.

We need to build scores of new schools in areas of place need

Great schools innovate all the time – they never stop.

But the opportunity of creating entirely new schools provides a golden moment for new thinking.

So this is a chance to revisit some of the fundamentals of the industrial model of schooling, recasting them a anew for the internet age.

Embrace new pedagogies.

Experiment with new curricula.

Place some of those remarkable new digital technologies at the service of the 21st century teacher.

Because one of the great disappointments of the free school programme has been a remarkable lack of innovation.

I expected to see so much more – but the speed, partisanship and ideology of the policy has prevented a creative step-change.

As the National Audit Office pointed out – the primary factor in application decision-making was “opening schools at pace”. 

Not value for money.

Not school standards.

And certainly not innovation.

So an incoming Labour Government would end the existing free schools programme.

Whilst we are face extreme pressures on the public fiannces – whilst schools like yourselves are wrestling with National Insurance and Pension contribution hikes, and 6th Forms continue to pay VAT – we just cannot afford to be wasting money building schools in areas where there is already a surplus of places.

Besides, the evidence from Sweden would seem to suggest there is not a lot to recommend a place-planning free-for-all in terms of raising standards either.

However, this does not mean that we should turn our back on charities, social entrepreneurs, teachers, educationalists, parents and community groups from coming forward with innovative new ideas for how we educate our children.

If people want to set up a new school in an areas of need;

commit to hiring world class qualified teachers;

and win an open fair and transparent competition run by our new Directors of School Standards;

then Labour is on your side.

And the same applies for people competing to take over under-performing existing schools too.

Parent-led academy group, charity, maintained school, or academy – what I care about is quality.

Because I want new schools under Labour to combine high standards with smart innovation.

I want all new schools opened by our Directors of School Standards to embrace the possibilities of this new chapter in education reform –with new applicants meeting a threshold for innovation.

And I want that to include the best school innovators in the world – be they from Australia, America, Singapore or Finland.

This last point is crucial. Because when you see innovative high-achieving schools and colleges around the world do extraordinary things with the most challenging of pupil intakes – you have to wonder why we don’t make more effort trying to encourage that expertise to influence education in Hull, Stoke-on-Trent, or the Medway.

Let’s encourage these innovators to come to Britain and partner with local schools and work alongside the Director of School Standards to spread innovative new thinking more quickly.



Ultimately the main energy for radical, system-wide school innovation must come from within;

And the centre still has an important role to play in facilitating it.

Most of all by raising the quality of the workforce.

This is without doubt the most important task of central government in a 21st century education system.

Because whether it is in childcare, social work, teaching or leadership, all the evidence shows it is the quality of teaching or care that makes the biggest difference.

Of course innovation can help here too, as organisations like Frontline and Teach First have shown.

But we also need to provide a far better national architecture for ongoing training and development.

You know, when I visit some of the highest performing education systems in the world and ask who they seek to emulate on leadership training, the answer is always the same.


The National College of Leadership was respected and admired all around the world.

And watering it down has to rank as one of the more myopic decisions of the current administration.

We need that kind of infrastructure back.

So we will create a new, dedicated school leadership institute – building on the best of the National College but with increased support from business so that we are more in tune with the demands of 21st century school leadership.

But there are other many other ways the centre can roll back the frontiers and get out of the way.

We can extend academy freedoms to all schools – which we will.

We can begin to devolve important powers over professional standards, quality assurance, curriculum development and peer review to profession-led bodies – and we will.

We can put an end to the endless tinkering with accountability, performance measures, curriculum, assessment criteria – which we will.

And we can give you the more positive freedom of knowing that a Labour government will increase education spending across the whole DfE budget in line with inflation – which we will.

Very quickly on funding.

I have heard your concerns about regional variances and the desire to move towards a national funding formula.

And I understand too that the complexion of educational inequality in this country is beginning to change quite dramatically.

The critical challenge is no longer East London – it is Suffolk, Hartlepool, the Isle of Wight and North Staffordshire.

And, over time, the disparities in unequal funding have to be made much more equitable.



Money is vital.  It allows you to hire the staff, provide the extra-curricular activities, plan for the future.

But we can also assist by reforming regulations that undermine school innovation and improvement.

Because the Department of Education is far from the only unhelpful concentration of bureaucratic control.

Take, for example, poorly-run academy chains.

Now do not mistake me: chains can be an incredibly important architecture in a school innovation system.

They can scale new ideas and spread high standards throughout our system.

That is a great thing and an important capacity for an innovative schools system.

But what happens to the outstanding school leader trapped in a near unbreakable bond with a poor or failing chain?

What incentives does that chain have to serve schools in the way that schools serve pupils?

Indeed, in some academy chains, I see far more control, micro-managing and revenue-skimming than in many a local authority.

In my view: chains should be inspected by OFSTED and competing to attract schools.

Just as schools have to compete to attract pupils.

But in so many cases at the moment – this just isn’t happening.

The government has never set out a process for good schools to ‘float off’ from poor chains.

So I would like to see shorter contracts with clearly defined break-out clauses.

A sort of ‘Bosman Ruling’ for chains, where good schools could leave for a better chain more willing to serve the best interests of parents and pupils.

And releases outstanding school leaders to pursue innovation and improvement with the best available partners.

I see too many schools struggling with second-rate academy chains, and I want to set them free.

And I see too few parents involved in the governance of large academy chains, unable to hold crucial decisions about their children’s schooling to account.



When Ed Miliband paid me the honour of appointing me Labour’s education spokesman, you won’t be surprised to know that I reached for the history books.

To read up on the great personalities of Labour’s educational history;

To imbibe in the movement’s commitment to education’s emancipatory power.

I read my Anthony Crosland and Andrew Adonis.

But you know, the quote that most inspired me came from Clement Attlee’s first education minister Ellen Wilkinson.

She said:

“It is important not to make plans that are too rigid. Schools must have freedom to experiment, and we need variety for the sake of freshness. We want laughter in the classroom, self-confidence growing every day, eager interest instead of bored uniformity.”

It spoke to me because it just seemed so unencumbered, so passionate, so enthral to the beauty and the business of education.

It just seemed to get, more than anything else I read how this is first and foremost about freedom.

The Labour Party understands deeply how disadvantage blights freedom.

How scarcity and poverty diminishes the power of an individual to shape his or her own fate.

But as someone who has had the privilege to educate young people, I fully understand its liberating power.

I understand that it is about skills and understanding.

About gaining a cultural inheritance.

About training one’s mind.

About creativity, socialisation and enjoyment.

About academic and emotional capacity.

About character, happiness, wellbeing and resilience.

But most of all that it is about freedom.

Granting young people the freedom and power to shape their own lives.

Ladies and Gentlemen, what I’ve learnt over the last eighteen months is that teachers and professionals need that freedom to thrive too.

Thank you.

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