20/10/2011 19:37 BST | Updated 20/12/2011 05:12 GMT

When Will Stephen Twigg It?


Since Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle, debate has been reignited regarding the policies Labour should be taking forward. No policy suggestion, though, has received anywhere near the backlash of Stephen Twigg's proposal that the Party should embrace the Government's free schools agenda.

Stephen Twigg represents an important section of the Labour Party and can take a share of the credit for Labour's achievements in education. But suggesting, on Sky News, that he would support the free schools agenda "if they helped poorer children and the wider community" is much akin to agreeing to take the Chuckle Brothers out for dinner on condition they stop saying "to me, to you" - it simply will not happen!

We, in the Labour Party, are so opposed to free schools because they are the epitome of a small statist ideology. The policy lauds individual empowerment but, paradoxically, will only work to further disempower the children who most need an improvement in educational provision.

On the 31st August The Guardian released research which shows that free schools will disproportionately advantage the middle classes. For example, just 29.1% of people living in the catchment areas of the first 24 free schools to be approved are categorised as "hard-pressed" or of "moderate means", compared with 36.9% for the country.

In addition, if the principle underlying the free schools agenda is that individuals should be 'freed' to establish their own schools, it is obvious that those who will primarily gain are the highly educated and prosperous, who have greater influence and more free time.

I joined the Labour Party, as I am sure did most other members, because I wanted to see social mobility increase, not decrease; I wanted to see the poor and disadvantaged become further empowered, not see the affluent take even greater ownership of society.

It is good that Stephen Twigg has grasped his brief immediately and is already challenging the Party with new ideas, but the challenge for him is not to partake in Michael Gove's narrow definition of what reform entails, but to widen the debate and propose more ideas of his own.

Coming from a family of teachers I have grown up listening to their frustrations and it appears to me as if there are two simple changes that could be made, within the state system, that would have a revolutionary impact on educational provision and negate the need for free schools.

Firstly, teachers need to be the sole authority in their classrooms. Gone should be the days that teachers have to think twice before disciplining a pupil and gone, too, should be the days when parents think they can march into school, because their little darling's phone has been confiscated or the little cherub has been kept behind for detention.

Teachers, once again, need to become pillars of their local community and that can only happen if they are respected by pupils and parents alike and not viewed as state servants with duties, but few rights. And to provide credit where credit is due Michael Gove has some good policies to achieve this end. For example, the Department for Education's policy now states that teachers can search students without their consent and they can use "reasonable force" to stop unruly pupils becoming a danger to themselves, others and school property.

Secondly - and less palatably, financially - we need to pay teachers more, particularly experienced professionals. I know of numerous people who would have loved to become teachers but the drop in salary would have been so eye-watering it just was not feasible. I am not saying that the state should necessarily match current salaries for those it is trying to attract into the profession, but it should start to pay excellent candidates a healthy salary from the moment they start their PGCE. It is only by doing this that we can attract those with the skills and experience necessary to give pupils an insight into industry.

Attracting professionals from industry into the classroom would also lay to rest, once and for all, the ridiculous myth that it is only those who cannot do anything else that teach. When this myth implodes it will go a long way to re-establishing the respect teachers once universally enjoyed from pupils, parents and society as a whole. This, too, will have a positive effect on school discipline.

Stephen Twigg is a decent, genuine and imaginative politician, but he has to be unflinchingly bold in helping Labour create its own debate on education and not be held hostage to the reductionist policies of Michael Gove. I am optimistic he will succeed!