Whilst most people with any leanings towards fairness and justice want to see an end to this Tory-dominated coalition as quickly as possible, a Labour victory in the May election still cannot be taken for granted. One would think Tory interference in education, with Gove`s totally unnecessary assessment reforms, forced academisation of schools, and repeated criticism of teachers, would have guaranteed Labour gaining the support of all those associated with state education, but, sadly, this is not the case. Even when the Tories make absurd claims about the success of their reforms, the response from Labour appears weak and confused.
Take free schools, for instance, with the Tories , not content to have spent millions of taxpayers` money on such vanity projects, now planning to build many more. It would be expecting too much for them to base their policies on empirical evidence, given Gove`s examination reforms, but even the report by Tory think-tank, Policy Exchange, on which their "500 more free schools" announcement is founded, admits its limitations. The fact that the report confesses its own "data cannot demonstrate conclusively" that any improvements in state schools have anything to do with being near a free school, beggars belief; they should have added, "despite what the prime minister will say"!
But, despite their intention to "scrap" the free school scheme, Labour failed to capitalise on this Tory nonsense by alienating teachers on another front. How many experienced teachers in the public sector were consulted before Tristram`s latest policy initiative? Of course, the country needs to "make the most of the talents of all our young people", as the shadow education secretary said, but how can that be achieved by identifying only a small proportion, the so-called "gifted and talented", and giving them special treatment? The huge majority of teachers know that all children have talents and deserve an educational system which will stretch them to the limit, and that designating some as worthy of a more expensive education than others, is clearly unfair. It a should not be featuring in an education policy of any political party, let alone Labour`s! Whatever happened to the idea of equality of opportunity?
Unfortunately, Tristram appears to have the knack of demonstrating his ignorance of state schools at a time when one would assume the teachers` vote was Labour`s for the taking. Does he and his advisers really think that support will be gained by harping on about "character education", based on the mistaken premise that pupils in state schools today lack sufficient "character and resilience". Hunt frequently has remarked on the alleged difference in this respect between the state and privately educated, but is this not an example of merely carrying on where Gove left off, making huge generalisations about education without the empirical evidence to substantiate them?
Naturally, the DfE has joined the debate, and their definition of “character” includes everything from "perseverance, drive, and grit" to "honesty and dignity", but how can they even begin to think that all of these characteristics, and more, do not abound in state schools? As for resilence, state pupils constantly display the ability to recover from setbacks. How often have they had to bounce back in the face of assessment "goalposts" being frequently moved, and their excellent examination results being criticised and challenged by politicians from all parties, not to mention the personal economic and social problems many face? Then there`s the Education Maintenance Allowance being removed, 6th form courses being dropped because of lack of government funding, university fees being hiked, and the ever-present preference shown by the so-called top universities for students from the private sector, despite recent research showing how state-educated undergraduates do better at university than students educated at the so-called "schools of character", with similar A-level grades.
Of course, the "enrichment activities that help cultivate well-rounded young people" are under threat in state schools, and perhaps it is here where Hunt`s attention needs to be focussed, rather than on England becoming in the DfE`s words, a "global leader of teaching character", with its inevitable criticism of teachers, albeit implicit this time.
Teachers have, since Hunt`s promotion to the post, been faced with many of his proposals, ranging from the unfair, support for Performance Related Pay, to the ludicrous, the need for teachers to be re-licensed every five years or so, to the absurd, the teachers` oath. Consequently, it is difficult to find any real educational reasons for teachers to vote for Labour; just as well there are so many for them not to vote Tory or Lib Dem!
Nevertheless, an all-out campaign to woo all those involved in the state education sector, in the last few weeks before the election, can still prove electorally fruitful. Every opportunity should be taken to sympathise with teachers for what they have had to endure in the last five years, and congratulate them for what they have achieved. Above all, promise them that things will improve under Labour, and that a Labour education secretary would meet with teacher union leaders on a regular basis, to discuss problems and find solutions – hardly rocket science!