Stephen Twigg Talks 'Demoralising' Free Schools, Ofsted And Gove's Dogmatic Policies

Stephen Twigg

First Posted: 24/01/2012 17:40 Updated: 24/01/2012 17:40

Stephen Twigg is not afraid to admit Labour did not always "get it right" when it comes to education.

The shadow education secretary concedes his government "interfered too much at the micro level of the classroom".

"We didn't get everything right, of course we didn't," he told Huffington Post UK. "I accept there are still too many young people leaving the education system lacking literacy and numeracy skills and so I'm in favour of a renewed focus on that.

It can't be easy confessing where Labour went wrong, and even less so admitting where the Conservatives are getting it right. Twigg recently hit the headlines for the party's controversial "U-turn" over Gove's free schools programme.

But he continues to defend his support: "I've said this a number of times: it's not about being against free schools.

"We wouldn't have introduced them in the way the government has done but most of these schools will succeed and we're not going to be in the business of closing down successful establishments."

"I certainly think there's sense in no-notice Ofsted inspections," he explains. "Schools can be utterly distracted by the knowledge Ofsted is coming in. I remember being a school governor in the late nineties and you know they're coming in and it's unhealthy."

So Ofsted can get a picture of the school on just one visit?

"That's an important point. Because we've seen a decline in the role of the local authority as a source of challenge and support for schools there is a risk all of our eggs are in the basket of Ofsted and that's an area we need to look at.

"I think Ofsted's important but I don't think a snap judgement is always going to be efficient."

So, another U-turn then...

But, before long, Twigg is back on track and launching into the usual attack on the government.

"Michael Gove is a man in a hurry. He's got things badly wrong; the way he cancelled Building Schools for the Future was rushed. I'll admit it was inefficient but if he'd taken a slower, more reflective approach he could have saved some of the programme.

"Gove sits behind his desk in London making decisions for thousands of schools," he chastises.

So the current education policy is too London-centric? Surely this is an issue with all policies, regardless of government?

"There's definitely a concern that because most of the national media is based in London, and a lot of politicians with children send them to London schools, that the city informs policy debate more than other parts of the country.

"But a lot of the issues in the capital are replicated in other urban areas," he continues.

"The biggest contrast can be urban and rural. Concepts of school choice and competition are sometimes pretty meaningless in the latter. We have to remain absolutely attuned to the importance of the needs of schools in rural and market town areas."

This problem would presumably be lessened, if not solved, if local authorities had more input into education?

"It's part of the policy review we are undertaking. I do think there remains an important role for the local authority but how that is best delivered is what we need to discuss.

"It cannot be desirable or viable for the accountability of thousands of schools to be in the secretary of state's hands in London."

And Twigg's criticism doesn't stop there.

"Gove is a man with a curious dogma about education. He has this attachment to a particular set of institutional solutions - academies and free schools - but he's silent on the majority of education in this country which is not being delivered through those two models."

Twigg adds he visits schools of "all types" achieving "brilliant things".

"You don't have to have the label.

"It is incredibly demoralising for teachers, parents and pupils in those schools which don't fall nto those categories to make it sound as though the only schools that merit any interest for us to learn from are the academies and free schools."

The MP is no doubt referring to the education secretary's continual pressure on schools to convert to academy status.

So what is the future for these hybrid schools?

"There needs to be a set of standards which apply consistently to all schools - but it is difficult to define these. Basic principles have to consist of fairness of funding, admissions and proper collaboration between schools," Twigg answers.

"People talk about autonomy and I think the principle of a school having its own character, its own ethos, being able to make its own decisions in many ways is a really important one. I don't think there's anyone in education who wants to turn the clock back to schools being directly run from the town hall.

"But I don't think any school should be an island. Schools work best when they have autonomy within the school but also an expectation that they should work cooperatively with other local schools, community, local authority and parents. I think we're moving away from that collaboration in a way that can be very harmful."

And what about working with other businesses? There's been widespread controversy over opening up schools to the market place, with one union calling the move "simply wrong".

"I want more relationships between businesses and schools," Twigg states.

But he quickly clarifies this is "very different" from an ideological model allowing profit-making businesses to interfere with schools.

"Let's have no doubt," he adds, "that's what the Tories really want.

"Businesses making a profit out of running a school? No way.

"Having a shared interest with schools in promoting literacy and job readiness? Absolutely."

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