Stephen Twigg is pruned to Labour’s education ideology
Only last week, Stephen Twigg positively welcomed Free Schools. In response to Michael Gove’s announcement on 10th October of 55 new Free Schools and 13 new University Technical Colleges, Mr Twigg said: “I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement.” He went on to heap praise upon their endeavours, declaring: “I congratulate the university technical colleges and free schools that have secured approval today.” He added: ‘Labour supports experimentation and innovation in how we set up new schools’, and called for an ‘evidence-based’ approach to the Conservative education revolution, explaining: “The question for the Government’s free schools policy is will the new schools established be good ones. Will they extend opportunities, particularly in deprived areas? Will they drive up school standards in their localities? Will they be based on a fair admissions policy? Most important of all, will they help to close the attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds? That is the basis on which we will scrutinise and challenge the Government’s policy. The Secretary of State’s belief in the programme is ideological. Our scrutiny will be evidence-based.”
What’s more, last week he was perfectly chilled about extending academies: ‘Mr Twigg also said he was “relaxed” about an enormous expansion of Academies, free of local authority influence and able to set their own curriculum, teaching hours and pay rates.’ So enthused was he that he called for all schools to have academy freedoms: ‘I struggle to understand why schools should have to apply for those freedoms. Why cannot the Bill simply give them to all schools?’ He stated categorically that he didn’t want to return to LEA omnipotence: ‘We need to look at a renewed role for local government in education, but without turning the clock back to the days of local authorities running schools; I do not think anyone is arguing for that.’
As if all this were not clear enough, only last Friday he gave an interview to the Liverpool Daily Post entitled ‘I will back free schools, says Labour’s new shadow education minister Stephen Twigg’, in which he explained that he is ‘not going to take an absolute policy of opposing them...’. Asked if Labour was shifting from a more traditional party stance on schools to a ‘New Labour’ policy, Mr Twigg said: “I think that’s too simple. But people will describe it in the way they want.” He explained his priority: “The tests should be: will the school raise standards for pupils and parents, will it contribute to a narrowing of the achievement gap between rich and poor and what is the wider impact of that school?”
But, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. While politicians of substance and conviction refuse to bend with the winds of pressure and stand as resolute as the oak, Mr Twigg lives up to his etiolated name. For now he says that he opposes the Free Schools policy. Seriously, On Sky News, he spouted: “What I said this week is we oppose the policy, we don’t want a free-for-all in British education, but as these schools open, some of them are going to be really good, some of them are going to be run by really good people and we’re not going to put ourselves in a position as a Labour Party of opposing those schools.”
And yet he (bizarrely) insists: “No, it’s not a U-turn – that makes a good headline in papers. There are very, very real concerns about the free schools policy, I share those concerns. We saw an announcement this week by Michael Gove for new free schools when there is not enough money for existing schools with leaking roofs.”
So, Labour’s education policy is ideological. They have thrown out empiricism and discarded evidence-based research. Stephen Twigg privately believes exactly as Tony Blair and Lord Adonis believe, but the mighty Balls-Burnham-Miliband ideology is too strong a wind for the leafy Twigg, who doubtless yielded under the threat of being pruned.
Just a year ago, Edward Miliband said Free Schools were ‘ the opposite of the thing we need’. Last month he reiterated: ‘I don’t think free schools are the right answer’.
Ed Balls referred the policy as ‘the most socially divisive education experiment for 60 years’. Andy Burnham in a speech to the NASUWT called it ‘a reckless gamble’, and in a press release referred to Free Schools as ‘an elitist experiment’.
So, poor Twiggy didn’t have a hope of resisting. Following the confusion created by his u-turn on a u-turn, he was challenged in Parliament yesterday by Education Secretary Michael Gove. The exchange went as folows:
Douglas Carswell MP: Many parents in my part of Essex would like to see local Free Schools. For all their enthusiasm, there are still too many obstacles and obstructions. What will the government do to make it easier to establish them? Could I bring a delegation of parents to discuss with officials how it could be done?And they wonder why politicians are among the most despised.
Michael Gove MP: I am grateful to him. We will do everything possible to support the establishment of Free Schools. But there is a barrier I cannot do anything about, and that is the confusion of the Labour Party benches. Just last Friday, and member said he would back the setting up of Free Schools. But just yesterday he said on television that the Labour Party opposed the Free Schools policy. His u-turn within 72 hours leaves parents and teachers in a quandary. That is why so many of them are saying, thank heavens it is a Coalition Government in power rather than Labour.
Stephen Twigg MP: Can I first of all join with the Secretary of State in welcoming the appointment of Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has a fine track record, and to thank his predecessors… I welcome the increase in the numbers of young people taking history, geography and foreign languages, but schools are getting mixed messages about the EBacc. Will he answer the question I put to his colleagues? When he looked to create a technical baccalaureate, as proposed by many, including his friend Lord Baker? If he does not do that the UTCs are being frozen out of the improvements he says he wants to deliver.
Michael Gove MP: It is a curious kind of freezing out, which has seen the number of UTCs increase massively as a result of the changes we have made. But if we are talking about freezing out and frost, what about the cold shoulder he is turning to the parents who want to set up free schools everywhere? If we are talking about a chill effect, what about the effect of all those who believe in educational reform who will have seen his brave efforts to try to drag the Labour Party into the 21st Century, only to see him tack back within 72 hours? We detect the hand of his leader dragging him back from a posture of reform to one of reaction.