Issues & Ideas | 25th April 2015

Tristram Hunt: “London is a city state on its own now. It is speeding away.”

We caught up with Labour’s shadow education secretary during a recent marginal visit to Battersea.

Photo: Getty


A few hours into the BBC’s 2010 election night, Ed Miliband – looking young and fairly anonymous – pops up. Five years later he could become the UK’s next prime minister this month.

Could such a fate await Tristram Hunt, a similarly smart and bookish Labour politician? We caught up with him recently in Battersea, where he was trying to help in a Tory seat that looks increasingly unlikely to turn Labour. We were joined by David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, hopeful for London Mayor and once also a freshly elected MP.

Hunt’s rise through the ministerial ranks has been rapid. He opposed Michael Gove in his brief as shadow education secretary before the Prime Minister’s most ‘radical’ minister was moved on. Whether Hunt has Gove’s same radicalism – or an approach similar to Gove’s most notable effective predecessor, Andrew Adonis – is one of the questions we tried to answer when we met him.

Many interviews, not least one by Stephen Bush, our colleague at the New Statesman, have woven Hunt’s words into a comment piece on him. Instead, here are his words unfiltered. The conversation below has been very lightly edited.

So your thesis is in Civic Thought in Britain, c. 1820 – 1860, was it? What did you learn from it?

Ha! That’s a good question. That the creation of civic pride was the expression of an urban middle class identity. And while we always think of the construction of the industrial city in terms of the construction of the proletariat and the construction of a working class through sport and leisure and the rest of it, the architecture, and symbolism and iconography of the Victorian city is a testament to a sort of bourgeois sense of urban identity.

[Aide: That hasn’t made it into your stump speech…]

What are the things that group the UK together now – what unites the City, Clacton and Cambridge?

Well I think it’s very hard. London is a city state on its own now. It is speeding away from the rest of the UK. Clacton is a city which feels left behind by globalisation. And Cambridge is a city that is brilliantly and successfully riding the wave of globalisation.

And I would say the variable uniting them is partly about education – education and skills – and obviously with Cambridge you’re drawing on 800 years of excellence.

Whereas Clacton and Hartlepool and the Isle of Wight and other coastal communities feel left behind by it [globalisation], and they’ve sought this answer in Ukip, which is the wrong answer.

Right. How do you help those kind of places? We visited Morecambe recently, another place that feels slightly forgotten.

It’s a range of issues. From bread and butter stuff – living wage, minimum wage, energy prices, making life more doable – to a bigger challenge. Good education, good schools, good apprenticeships.

How do you get high quality teachers into underperforming areas? What will transform kids in Morecambe is being in front of a great teacher every day. There used to be a financial supplement for being a teacher in a high poverty area. How are we incentivising teachers to go to harder-to-staff areas?

But they’ve got kids, and want to send their kids to good schools. You need somewhere to live, you need a professional community. Morecambe and Clacton have equal challenges in terms of getting doctors as teachers.

But it can be done. This was the story in Manchester 20 years ago. It’s on the change.

Yes, it’s easy to see how you further the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and build on the success of inner cities, but how you build up seaside towns?

…you could have said the same thing about London 20 years ago. We want a series of London Challenges around the country. In Clacton, have an Essex-wide challenge. In Yarmouth, have Suffolk-wide one.

You have this very fragmented schools landscape. Every school’s an island.

In an ‘autonomous schools landscape’ how do you promote collaboration? In Morecambe, there are great schools nearby.

What about private schools – do they do enough?

We’ve going to establish the School Partnership Standard, and leave it up to the Independent School Inspector – which is a real good tough inspectorate. I don’t want to spend my time taking money from schools, I want greater collaboration.

The Adonis/Gove idea that every private school should sponsor an academy – it’s really hard, many are not very good at it. Private and state schools should be in a ‘mutually supportive’ relationship.

Tell our readers, or NS readers, why shouldn’t private schools be banned?

I don’t think the state should be in charge of deciding what is and what isn’t a charity. Under this government, you could have easily seen Oxfam and Greenpeace being declared not a charity.

There then is the question of private schools fulfilling their charitable obligation.

We interviewed Ark’s Lucy Heller interview last year – are you anti-academies? We suggested you were. What is the party’s position?

Well the academy programme was a Labour programme, and we’re very proud of its achievements. But we don’t have a hierarchy of school belief. The strength of leadership and quality of teaching are the constants. There are good academies and bad ones.

There was a moment in time when academies were absolutely the correct programme. But the freedoms that academies now have, we want to add that to local authority schools.

And the way we move on is believing in more collaboration. We want them to connect ‘horizontally as well as vertically’.

So there should be no limit on Ark-like chains?

I think there are natural limits. The problem with this goverment is they over-expanded the academy programme too quickly. There was no systematic approach, unlike with Ark. […academies don’t amount to a privatisation of the system do they?] No, they’re not privatisation. They’re state funded.

And they don’t siphon off the middle class?

No, we were just in Hove – they help the least advantaged. But we need more transparency and less hierarchy.

What do you agree with Michael Gove on?

He took on the work we had done on computer science. And the Teaching Schools Alliance. But Michael’s problem was he approached this all in a highly ideological, Leninist way. Don’t do everything at once – what you then do is grind everything to a halt. To speak to year elevens now, they’re almost trauma victims.

We’re not coming in and throwing it all up in the air again. If you have a new curriculum every time you have a new government…

Michael wanted for-profit schooling. It doesn’t work, whether you look in Sweden or Cleveland. The results were terrible. I think in principle it will never work, and it shouldn’t work. Education is part of what a progressive state does. You don’t want people shortchanging children for profit. I’m in favour of investment, but profit-marketing chains don’t work. We know, from the Lib Dems, that that’s what Michael wanted. He wanted a socially Darwinian system that would raise standards.

But teachers are public servants in a moral mission, they are collectively working together.

Adonis went to great pains to protect his academy programme. To deliver reforms, surely you sometimes have to act in spite of the system, not with it?

By under Michael we had teaching strikes. The way to do it is to explain it, develop a consensus and deliver it.

But if Adonis had tried that [with academies] in the early 2000s, that wouldn’t have worked?

…you want evidence, you want pilots, you want to show why it’s right and you show why it succeeds. The sponsored academy highlighted a problem, developed a solution, was transparent in its consequences.

Yes of course there are fights, and it’s good that there are fights. But I think the lesson is you can achieve more by explaining and taking the profession with you than by militaristic language.