Teachers returning to their classrooms after a mild September weekend would today be forgiven for believing two Tristram Hunts are roving Labour conference this year.
The first attended Saturday’s “PolicyMeet” – a Labour Teachers and Education Foundation event, organised by John Blake – with different speakers from across the education sector giving their ideas about what Labour ought to do if they win a future election. Watching the tweets from the event and listening to people talk about it, Hunt was described as engaging, human, and on-the-ball. He watched the whole session intently; asking questions (“What was that exact number again?”) and making policy suggestions (“I’d like to see local hearings for the opening and closing of new schools”).
Yesterday, however, a second Hunt stood on the platform at Labour conference. To many in the room, it felt as if this one said almost nothing.
His seven minute talk was carefully-crafted: hitting childcare, qualified teachers, and the ‘forgotten 50%’. But there were no new policies, nor much detail on how they would be implemented.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of teaching union ATL, wrote on Twitter: “What about qualification reform? Teacher morale? Ofsted? CPD? Teacher workload? What is Labour’s offer to teachers?”
Matt Hood, writer of Schools Week’s ‘Labour Conference preview’ said: “The main thing that was missing was being really clear about Labour’s position on academies and free school.”
However, Hunt’s silence on the topic might be to do with conference mood. In the session before Hunt spoke, the largest round of applause went to a delegate standing on the stage asking that the Labour party “attack free schools and academies”. One presumes he meant a metaphorical attack, but it was easily the biggest cheer of the Children and Education session.
Despite the baying crowd, Hood believed it was smart for Hunt not to bash academies too hard. “If you have an outstanding academy Labour are not going to close it because of some dogmatic principle about which type of school is better. I think that’s sensible.”
Beyond the PR-fest of the main hall speech, teachers at the fringe events I attended continually raised two major concerns.
First, that the “fragmenting” of the school system through academisation has cut out more than just local authorities – but also many services, such as educational psychologists, sports partnerships, and joined-up youth offender initiatives.
So far, then, conference has been a game of two Hunts.
Second, that a focus on traditional subjects has damaged the ‘creative curriculum’ and has meant the broader curriculum – e.g. educational trips to theatres and museums – have been neglected.
One can argue about whether or not these claims are accurate. But the strength of feeling was clear.
On the wider curriculum, Hunt did make a pledge in his speech that Labour would legislate for ‘childcare’ in schools from 8am to 6pm. However, it wasn’t clear what age group this would cover, nor how it would be funded. Education secretary, Nicky Morgan, appears to have capitalised on that absence this morning as the Daily Mail is reporting she will later announce a £5million fund for ‘character-building’ after-school activities.
So far, then, conference has been a game of two Hunts. The set speech is now over and there are no expectations of further announcements from him, though his frankness at the PolicyMeet suggests he may drop policy hints at other events he is due to attend. There’s also the possibility that a juicy edu-policy is being saved for Ed Balls or Ed Miliband, though with education seeming a low priority for the next general election, no one is holding their breath.
If bigger policies don’t materialise, however, I fear that in the great big wastebasket of past education speeches, this one shall simply be remembered as “The Speech of No Big Dreams”.
Laura McInerney is now Editor of Schools Week (formerly Academies Week)