A Meeting With Tristram Hunt

In my book (bear with me, it’s not a plug), I argue that what we need in education is a ‘revolution’. But I caution:-

“When under pressure, it’s easy to look for those who are to blame. There is no doubt…that politicians of all colours, have a lot to answer for. But this would be a simplification of the situation. We need to look closer to home if we are to really change the way things are. How many of us have quietly complied in order to avoid unwanted attention? How many of us have sought to rank ourselves in comparison with our peers? How many have lost sight of a child in the pursuit of results? How many of us have changed the way we teach to suit what we imagine an Ofsted inspector is looking for? In all these ways, we collude in the system we say we deplore. This book argues for a revolution, but this is not so simple an act as rising up and overthrowing an oppressor. We need to rise up against our own worst natures. We need to evolve in order to thrive and so this form of evolution might be better conceptualised as a (r)evolution.”

When Michael Gove came into power, he charged into the arena like the Black Knight, using his jousting pole to smash whatever he could and jeering at the crowd. ‘Blobs!’ he cried, ‘Enemies of Promise’. He changed our world so fast, our heads were spinning. But among that destruction he sowed some seeds. He forced us to look again at pedagogy. He forced us (ironically as it happens because it transpires that the DfE doesn’t actually subscribe or have access to journals) to engage with research. He opened up a conversation about how children learn. Those seeds are growing into poppies. What I don’t want is a new Education Secretary, even if he is a White Knight, to charge into the arena and smash those poppies to pieces in order to make his mark. I am not a damsel in distress. I want the politicians, as far as possible, to get out of the way. And so, when I heard these words from Tristram Hunt yesterday, my heart soared:-

“Can you name the education ministers of Singapore, Finland, Massachusetts? No, and you shouldn’t be able to. We’re here to serve, not to seek fame or attention.”

Tristram Hunt is not a knight on a steed. He is travelling on foot, surveying the landscape – the damage, yes, but also the poppies, and he’s working out what to keep, what is worth changing and what can’t be saved. And this takes time. He is a man who firmly believes that it is the job of the secretary of state to “represent the children in this country first and teachers second” but who also recognises that “children first” is also most teacher’s mantra. He wants to do what he can to get out of our way while recognising that he is responsible for a huge amount of public money (not as much as we need or would like, but a huge amount nonetheless) and he is working out how to balance that responsibility while giving the trust he feels we are so in need of. I, with @cherryl_kd, @imagineinquiry and @thought_weavers spent an afternoon with him yesterday and I felt I had met a man who showed wisdom and humility.

I was surprised last night at some of the language used on twitter criticising Hunt. What does he stand for? He’s been too slow to learn his brief! He needs to give us more! While I understand these concerns, do we really want more haste and less speed?In asking him to give, give give, are we not undermining our own capacity to take, to shape, to grow? I can answer some of the questions and I can repeat what he said. Do I agree with it all? No. But I never will agree with everything one person says or does. That’s life. Do I think he has a clear vision, is prepared to listen and is well intentioned? Yes.

Here is the summary of the discussion in my own words – where I have quoted him directly, there are speech marks. Level 4 punctuator I am.

The Vision

If he has one aim it is to “lift children out of poverty”. Yes, we’ve heard it all before. But this government said it while putting more than 300,000 more children into poverty. Hunt recognises that education is an important tool in this battle, but that it is not the responsibility of teachers to do this alone. He wants to reintegrate health, social care and education. He wants to invest hugely in EYFS, reinstating SureStart and engaging with hard to reach families. He wants to value the vocational routes that lead to the jobs that many young people aspire to so that we can “challenge the low wage, low skill economy” that we have at the moment and which is doing “little to bring money into the public system.”

“I want children to be happy, and to learn in an enriched environment where they can develop their personalities.”


One of the criticisms of SureStart was that the centres attracted too many middle class parents. But we discussed yesterday my experience of working at a school in a highly deprived area which had a SureStart centre attached to it. The presence of those middle class parents, mingling with parents who lived on the estate made for a greater understanding of both ways of living and greater empathy. Friendships grew, clothes were passed on. Children played together. It wasn’t a bad thing. But of course, “the investment has to work for those it is targeting” and so there is close attention being paid to the kinds of services that would draw people in and that is a priority. Investing in high quality child care is expensive, but the EPPE study shows that it is critical. The difference between Labour and the Conservatives on this point is that there isn’t the belief from Labour that pushing the academic curriculum down into EYFS is the answer. “Attachment, play, language, love” – these are the things that make children school ready.

Achievement can be more than Academic

“A broader conversation needs to be had about the 14-19 space”

There will not be a radical overhaul of curriculum and exams – there has been “too much meddling and instability already“. The proposed reforms to A Levels will not go ahead, however, because the Labour education team have listened to advice from Universities warning against the decoupling of the AS and A Level. While he stated that he believed that the “A Level has integrity and will be kept“, he voiced concerns about the impact of changes to the GCSE, in particular the removal of practical assessments.

He has a long term vision. He thinks it will take five years for the changes he wants to make at the entry and exit points of education to embed to the point at which it a) is recognised as the norm that formal, compulsory education ends at 18 and b) that there is equivalent respect accorded to academic and vocational routes – he spoke highly of the work that Chris Husbands and Tom Sherrington had done on shaping a leaver’s Baccalaureate. Only at that point, where a cultural tipping point had passed, could we have proper conversations about more radical options. But in the meantime, there would need to be wide consultation on how we reinstate and value practical assessments, while maintaining credibility and how we ensure that children are getting the breadth in the curriculum that they are entitled to. In short, he wants to listen to the profession about how best to proceed.

He recognised that sixth form colleges are centres of excellence that often outperform local school provision. He accepted that the fact that they pay VAT and schools don’t was something that was “grossly unfair” but was clear that this was a cost that could not be prioritised in the current climate. He did say, however, that school sixth forms should be inspected in the same category as sixth form colleges and that this would make for fairer comparison. This will be welcome news to many sixth form colleges.

Accountability and Osted

There was some support for the way Ofsted has already moved towards reform this year in terms of dropping graded observations and so on, but there is still much to do. “Ofsted should not be carrying out the latest whims and fancies of the Secretary of State, like inspecting “British Values” and they “should have no role to play in how teachers are paid” – they will not be checking up on PRP (more on this later). There needs to be accountability, but we also need to think about how to free teachers and schools up to feel they can innovate without fear.

Having said this, he recognised that “Ofsted is a powerful lever” for changing behaviours in schools. He has no qualms about using the inspection service to ensure that “all children are receiving a broad and balanced curriculum” – even in Year 6! No more reduction of the curriculum to serve the SATS or removing children from Foundation Subjects for literacy and numeracy interventions. Not if you want to be a Good school. And those schools who removed Drama and Arts subjects from their curriculum offer when the EBACC came in might be well advised to start advertising for a Drama teacher.

Academies/Free Schools etc

“Relentless structural reform has had no impact and has been a waste of time and money.”

There will be no reversal of current status of schools. They’ll stay as they are. To be fair, the government has little choice in this – when a school becomes an academy or a free school, the land and buildings are signed over to the trust and taken out of public ownership. Even if he wanted to revert to a single state system (which he doesn’t), we’d have to buy them all back. So instead the plan is to ensure that whatever you are, you are equal and that there are no hierarchies of types of school that are better than another. There are some gross unfairnesses in funding that are going to take time to sort out, but in short, we make the best of what we’ve got.


There was little movement on PRP. It’s staying. But it won’t be monitored by Ofsted or tied to results. It should be used at the discretion of the Head teacher and awarded for “going the extra mile”. It should not be used for results – “It’s a nonsense to reward someone for the results of a class that they have taught for two terms when we know that learning is an accumulative process.

He also felt that flexibility over pay could help Heads to attract staff to areas of need, such as coastal towns and he was interested in schemes in places such as Hull where the LA and schools have worked to fund accommodation for teachers prepared to move and work there. He sees it as an incentivising freedom and claimed that 80% of heads like it. I don’t know of many teachers who do though.

Teacher Trust and Wellbeing.

He strongly recognised that trust in teachers was essential and that the profession should have the freedom to shape its own future. He has openly stated his support for a College of Teaching before and so we didn’t discuss this in the meeting. Instead we talked about career progression. He was really interested in two things a) what makes the job unbearable and b) what would make it more stimulating and engaging in the longer term.

We talked about the key difference in the way that data should and is used. As Lee, from @thought_weavers said, data should be diagnostic, but we all told tales of how it was used as a summative shield, with no benefit for children in many schools. Using data wisely and carefully and in a way that serves the children is a key priority for him.

It’s a no brainer to him that teachers should be qualified and for those already in post that they should work towards qualification.

He talked about how teachers could be encouraged to stay in the classroom and there was a good discussion about the pros and cons of the AST system. He wants to entice teachers with a number of possible career routes. In recent years there have been a plethora of initiatives – NLEs SLEs and so on, but all aimed at people already in leadership and the progression of the classroom teacher who wants to stay a classroom teacher has been left to Heads. Some of them have kept ASTs, some have introduced Lead Practitioners, but there is a patchy picture with no nationally set pathway any more. Tim and I discussed our different experiences of AST and felt that there had been little consistency in the role. Latterly it had become a title without a need to go for the assessment if your head was prepared to simply rubber stamp it. So it needs to start again. But we were united in dismay at the prospect of Master Teacher to replace it. He laughed. “So what would you call it?” he asked. “Ask twitter” we replied. So last night there was a long conversation about this with these suggestions coming forward:-

Lead Practitioner

Learning Leader of Education (LLE to fit in with NLE and SLE)

Teacher Coach

Ninja Teacher (I know it will never happen but I so want it to….)

What do you think – add your suggestions to the comment box.

He recognises that sometimes people get bored and want to pursue other interests. He wants to leave doors open for returners, to explore ways that teachers can study, can reach out of the classroom when they want to/need to, but he also recognises the need for stability and high quality pupil experience. He wants us to shape our future and to put forward suggestions.


I have written before about his views that while a variety of ITT routes should be available, there should nevertheless be a central co-ordinating role for Universities to play. Perhaps not surprising for a former University Lecturer to say that they have a valuable role to play. He is keen to hear the outcomes of the Carter review before committing to a vision but expressed some concerns about Schools Direct.


I came away feeling that we could have done with another couple of hours or days or weeks…but that here is someone who will sacrifice his image as a cut and thrust adversary to the Conservatives in order to create stability and make some space, as far as possible for teachers to step forward and organise. We have to seize that opportunity for trust. We can stand on the sidelines, tut and demand. We can insult, criticise and roll our eyes. But these are all ways to avoid actually doing something. We have an opportunity here. Let’s please take it.

19 thoughts on “A Meeting With Tristram Hunt

  1. I’m pleased Hunt wants age 18 to be recognised as the norm for the end of compulsory education. This should pave the way for graduation at 18 via multiple routes (‘gold standard’ A level, vocational exams, work experience, participating in initiatives such as Young Enterprise and Duke of Edinburgh Award). Much less emphasis on GCSEs – they should be fewer in number and used to decide post 16 options not to judge schools.

    That said, all pupils should have a broad, balanced curriculum until 16. The subjects don’t have to be examined just taught. No dropping out of, say, geography or arts subjects at 14. Inspectors should judge the quality of the curriculum and penalise schools which stopped offering D&T for example. That should put the wind up our local grammar – no textiles after Y7, no home economics at all.

    1. If he wants primary schools to offer a broad based curriculum then he needs to acknowledge that high stakes testing is the barrier to remove. My son went to an outstanding school in a middle class area and they used boosters, after school coaching and interventions to get their 100%

      If you compare that to a school in an area with high EAL and constant movement of population how can they even hope to achieve similar results without also using interventions.

      The current system is so skewed by the league tables stakes I for one do not trust it.

      This is the biggest albatross around the necks of children. And I do mean children and not teachers. It is they who are being damaged. Year 6 nearly de railed my son’s love of learning and his brother is heading the same way.

  2. A Baccalaureate system is inevitable. GCSEs and A levels can be retained in a baccalaureate but other more appropriate qualifications can gradually be phased in. It does not need a great upheaval, significant costs or any other disruption. We already have a Baccalaureate structure (www.modbac.info) that is fully inclusive and comprehensive from primary through to 18 and including SEN, fully backed by free open source technologies and very inexpensive to operate. It can use current qualifications and any new ones that are developed.

    Excuse me for a little scepticism of party political love affairs. Politicians before an election are going to tell you what you want to hear. Evidence? The focus twiddling with A levels and using words like rigour for political effect at the same time producing garbage like the KS1/2 performance consultation. This is not party political, it will happen whichever party is in power as it is a symptom of top down bureaucracy. I wouldn’t rely on politicians or the DfE to innovate in policy or implementation, their track record is abysmal. It’s time for the profession to stand up and be counted Instead of waiting for politicians (Let’s face it there is likely to be a hung parliament and perhaps a year or two of no direction) to provide the professional lead and then moan at them for doing it badly. Just do it. There is nothing structural in the current reforms to prevent schools adopting a baccalaureate that fits progress 8 measures etc but recognises a wider range of learning than 8 GCSEs and 3 A levels alone. There is no need for an academic vocational polarisation, technology has made such nonsense redundant. If even a significant minority of teacher believe this is a desirable way forward, just do it. If not then perhaps we deserve the working environment handed down to us from on high.

  3. Thanks for this Debra – it’s always great to have people who believe that these sorts of conversations should be in the blogasphere. I am torn here as I do understand the need for space and stopping the ‘initiativitus’ of the Gove years but I do fee that there is some damage that need to be repaired.

    The give away to academies and esp. free schools should be reversed and not by paying anyone anything – these places did not pay the treasury for this premises – they need to be brought back into public ownership it is one of the quieter scandals the amount public property that has been given away.

    If he is serious about the diminution of the role of the SoS perhaps the biggest commitment TH could make would be to commit to give away the many, many statutory powers that various SoSs have gathered unto themselves over the last 40+ years and think very seriously what an empowered teaching college might look like – and who might form that council.

    On the area of ITT some real commitments to quality in terms of the involvement of HEIs and the development of ITT into more of model like Finland – I have written on this here (http://paulltnt2013.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-future-of-teacher-supply.html?view=magazine) as there is a growing crisis in teacher supply and with the population change this does need action as well as reflection.

    Thanks again for your contributions.

    Paul Hopkins.

    1. Thank you Paul, there’s nothing I disagree with there and the handing over of land, property and millions of pounds of tax payer’s money has been nothing short of scandalous. But I worry that any attempt to reverse it could end up in a legal battle costing millions and having no effect whatsoever on children. I wonder if sometimes it’s better to cut your losses. I don’t know.

      As for CoT, at other meetings I’ve attended, he’s been wholeheartedly in favour so fingers crossed. Thanks for the link – I’ll have a read.

    1. Actually he was very clear about pulling vocational and academic routes together and how important good advice was. He’s also spoken previously about this, as have Kevin Brennan and Ian Mearns. It’s a priority within the overarching aim of creating pathways that lead to skilled and well paid work.

  4. Ah so they are abandoning the idea of a TechBac then and just having a Baccalaureate that gives equal credit and status to academic and vocational qualifications within it that can be mixed and matched? Something that has appropriate accreditation for all from those with special needs through to Oxbridge? That’s great news but I’ll reserve judgement until I see that clearly spelled out in a policy statement and then once the election is over see the practical implementation by the DfE in collaboration with BIS.

  5. Really reassuring to hear a considered and coherent vision that includes a strong moral philosophy from sure-start to sixth form(interestingly very close to the Heads Roundtable manifesto of some months ago) .Thank you for getting this message out there Debra- my concern is that that there hasn’t been a debate to compare the various parties positions and we need to hear these positions over the next few weeks in order to have a serious debate and make informed decisions in the build up to the election-is it too much to ask for you to meet Laws/Morgan et al over the next few weeks??

  6. Thanks for this, Debra.

    I do wonder where the statistic that “80% of heads like PRP” has come from, though….

    And I wouldn’t say that it was “boredom” that motivates some teachers to try other careers.

  7. Thanks for this very enlightening post, Debra. There is no doubting your sincerity in reporting the outcomes from your meeting with TH. It is clear that he made a sound impression on you and that so much of what he spoke about valuing is very different from the politically biased battering our profession has suffered for too long. There may be no question either of the sincerely of his beliefs BUT, I am wary of pre-election promises and aware that politics is invariably a game of ‘hard-ball’. The election outcome is likely, according to many, to be a hung parliament. What part, if any, TH would play in the governance of education once all the horse trading had been done is another unknown. On top of this, until all the parties publish their relevant manifestos, the electorate will not know what is earmarked for further ‘reform’ and exactly what the changes are likely to mean to all the different education stakeholders.

    From what little I have written already, you will have good reason to chide me for my rather negative comments. I take your well mannered criticism on the chin –
    “We can stand on the sidelines, tut and demand. We can insult, criticise and roll our eyes. But these are all ways to avoid actually doing something. We have an opportunity here. Let’s please take it.”

    In my defence, I will make just two points because, like you, I know we have to do something to change education for the better for ALL our young people:

    First, to me it matters only a little who wins the election, so long as education and other vital public services do not suffer from the inevitable effects of the swings and roundabouts of outrageous politics. Only thus will ordinary people benefit. You are right, we have an opportunity here that we have to take. The opportunity I want us to take, however, is to remove the governance of education from political control and I am not alone in believing this. It would restore my faith in the political system of this democracy if Tristram Hunt were to add his name to the campaign calling for this at ordinary voices.org.uk There is no better time for politicians to commit to this.

    Second, as others have suggested, there is a righting of wrongs to be done and TH could enhance his and his party’s reputation if this were to happen. All former state funded schools that have become free schools or academies did not buy any of the stock they now enjoy. It must be returned to public ownership.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my responses.

    1. I completely understand those concerns John and am under no illusion that politicians of all colours are, well politicians. But I take heart and hope where I find them 🙂

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