Shields up!

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“What would Jean-Luc Picard do about parental involvement in school provision?”

Tristram Hunt has just concluded a robust and impressive interview on the Andrew Marr Show, following on from a strong first interview in the Mail on Sunday. He has hit the ground running, policy-wise, by resolutely committing Labour to retaining existing free schools (if they’re good enough), backing “social entrepreneurs” who want to open new schools in areas of need under a Labour government (these will be called “parent-led academies”) and, for added measure, refusing to concede that Michael Gove is the only game in town when it comes to “rigour”.

I think there are three things here worthy of quick comment:

1) None of this is new policy and Labour activists should not be in the business of attacking a Shadow Secretary of State less than a week into his new job. Judging from the reaction of many, especially from the Left, on Twitter, you’d think Tristram had announced the immediate charging of fees in all state schools. Parent-led academies and keeping good free schools were all announced by Stephen Twigg when he was Shadow Education Secretary, and both are developments of Labour’s commitment to academies which was well-established under Blair and Brown. And the these policies remain within the wider framework of Labour’s policy commitments to ensuring all young people have an excellent education, both to fit them for the work they wish to do and to allow them to enter into a world of thoughts and ideas that academic education provides. What Hunt has done, quite rightly, is put the rhetorical rocket-boosters under Labour’s policy. Good for him – Labour activists should support this clear commitment to be on parents’ side, and not engage with the ever-hostile moaning of certain parts of the education establishment. Indeed, we need to get the shields up to protect him from attack from both the bitter Far Left and the frightened Right.

2) “Need” is going to need to be defined clearly. Hunt has said parent-led academies will appear in areas of “need”; well, that can mean a lot of different things. Clearly, in a time of economic austerity, Labour would be irresponsible (as the current government has been irresponsible) not to have some regard to already-existing provision when locating new schools. However, Labour cannot and should not be in a position of telling parents that, because the local primary down the way has places spare, they have to send their kids there if the reason there are spaces is because the school is awful. Asking parents to have more kids to quality for a PLA isn’t going to work. Instead, Labour needs a clear definition of need that encompasses quality as well as quantity of available school places.

3) What about the teachers (and other types of social entrepreneur)? Most free schools have not actually been set up by parents – teachers have been in the driving seat for many of them, and academy chains for several more. These have been powerful drivers of improvement, and Labour needs to make sure that this entrepreneurial spirit is not lost. PLAs will also need to encompass teacher groups (especially because such groups are more likely to be a moveable feast, willing to set up their school in areas of need rather than in their home locality) and those academy chains who are proven successes in delivering new schools. I’ve always understood that was the case, but it’d be good to have that made clear.

All in all, Hunt has made an excellent start to his new role: a clear communicator who is obviously determined to take Labour’s case to parents and not afraid of Michael Gove. Well done.

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