September 2013


  • The purpose of education
    Everyone has an opinion about what our schools and colleges should be striving to achieve and how they should go about it. For the sake of young people, it’s time to build a consensus. More
  • Inside knowledge
    Understanding leadership styles is not just beneficial for senior leaders, says John Bennett. It can be helpful for teachers early in their careers too, in order to help them realise their full potential. More
  • In the driving seat
    As chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart has been one of Michael Gove’s fiercest critics, despite being a fellow Tory. He talks to Liz Lightfoot about system reform, the latest curriculum controversy and why he’s backing ASCL’s Great Education Debate. More
  • Time to get grounded
    Schools can do even more with parent power if they harness it to improve teaching and learning in a real and credible way, says Jim Fuller. More
  • A wider vision
    A new Recommended Code of Governance for Schools, devised by the Wellcome Trust and education bodies, aims to fill the gaps in governors’ understanding of their strategic role. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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As chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart has been one of Michael Gove’s fiercest critics, despite being a fellow Tory. He talks to Liz Lightfoot about system reform, the latest curriculum controversy and why he’s backing ASCL’s Great Education Debate.

In the driving seat

Michael Gove has a favourite phrase for those who disagree with him – “enemies of promise” – and usually “Marxist” as well. So it’s strange to find the most persistent critic of Gove’s education policies sitting on his side of the House.

Graham Stuart, the Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness and chairperson of the education select committee, has called the education secretary to order over the rushed implementation of the academies bill, the ill-fated English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBacc) and the changes to GCSE, to name but a few of his broadsides.

People should not try to drive the education service like a sports car, Graham warned recently, with Gove clearly in mind, and his committee has accused Gove of pushing through “rushed and ill-thought-out changes” and “trying to do too much too fast”.

So what happens when he bumps into the Secretary of State in the tea room?

“Michael is a self-confident individual and I have never found any change in him regardless of whether I have recently criticised him or differed with him on policy,” Graham says. “He is not one of those people who hate you just because you disagree with him. Actually, it has been rather good; I enjoy my relationship with Michael. I said that you can’t drive education like a sports car, not that Michael was driving it that way, though I suppose the implication is fair enough.”

He earned a reputation for asking difficult and abrasive questions originally as a committee member, so much so that Ed Balls, the former Labour education secretary, allegedly wanted him to become the chairman under a Conservative-led government.

“Ed told me that he had voted for me to be chairman because if I was anything like such a pain to his successor as I had been to him, it would be a good choice,” Graham says.

Making policy?

Under Stuart, the select committee has attacked key Gove plans, including the proposal to replace GCSEs with the English Baccalaureate Certificate. The committee joined a chorus of critics, warning that the certificate of achievement proposed for children taking vocational subjects would be seen as “a badge of failure” and the EBacc was eventually scrapped.

Does he think the select committee’s criticisms to the proposals played a part in Gove’s about-turn? “I do, yes.”

But should a select committee be making policy? “It’s not our job to make policy. My committee is cross-party and we take evidence from others. We act as a platform for people to talk about the impact of policy and then we condense it, reflect and make representations to government. We are not a think tank. It’s not ‘Graham Stuart who has never taught a class of children in his life’ thinking he is such a big expert. Our job is to listen to those who do know.”

In a similar vein, he is attracted to ASCL’s Great Education Debate – the idea that we need to take stock and look objectively and without political bias at the evidence of what works and what doesn’t work and seek consensus over a vision for the future.

“I think it is a great idea,” he says. “If you look at the more successful jurisdictions, what keeps them getting better is continuity of approach. It’s their ability to set objectives and keep working on them rather than constantly reinventing the wheel that allows them to be successful. Yes, we need a big conversation and we need to find ways of creating greater levels of stability in policy framework than we have had in recent years. So I say ‘well done’ to ASCL and I will very happily participate.”

Stuart, 51, was born in Carlisle, Cumbria and says that his father, a consultant anaesthetist, and his mother, a nurse, made big sacrifices in order to send him to Glenalmond College, the expensive boarding school dubbed the Eton of the North.

“I was sent to boarding school from the age of eight to 18, that’s 31 terms and I enjoyed only the last one. The last term there was just a small group of us, Oxbridge candidates, and I was a prefect. I had been a prefect before but been removed after certain misbehaviour. I had been a remarkably strict and intransigent prefect the first time round and not very good at controlling those in my charge. By the second time I had clocked human nature to a far greater extent and managed to control the house much better and I was a lot more popular.”

He studied philosophy and law at Cambridge – possibly where he honed his style of speaking plainly and at great length, as well as his painstaking approach to evidence and policy, a although he failed his degree after devoting time to founding a publishing company. He became an MP in 2005.

Accountability is key

School accountability is the biggest issue facing education today, he says. The present system with its five GCSE A* to C benchmark has perverse outcomes. It is unfair to schools with children of prior low attainment who make lower rates of progress because if the schools don’t make the benchmark they are subject to intervention. Meanwhile, all the focus and deployment of the most able teachers is on borderline pupils a year or two away from their GCSE exams and, therefore, both less able children and more able children are ignored.

“We have successive governments saying they want to close the gap in attainment between rich and poor, recognising that teacher quality is the key determinant of educational success and yet have an accountability system that encourages and incentivises good heads, good department heads and good teachers to get the heck out of the most deprived schools and move to the most prosperous. Little wonder that we struggle to close the gap.”

Launching a consultation on school accountability last February, Gove suggested a three-part measure: the proportion of pupils reaching a threshold in English and maths, an average points score based on children’s performance in their best eight subjects and a progress measure that isolates the actual “value added” by a school.

The Department for Education (DfE) is now considering more prescription in the choice of eight subjects, Stuart says. The eight would need to include English and maths, three English Baccalaureate (that is, core academic) subjects and three other subjects. As computing has now been added to the choice of EBacc subjects, it means, in practice, that pupils could make choices at 14 that didn’t include chemistry, biology or physics – because they only need three EBacc subjects and computing could count as their ‘science’.

“We could move to a situation where lots of young people in certain schools are doing no science GCSEs. I have had representations from the science community and raised it with Michael,” Stuart says.

At A level, he is relying on Ofqual to put the brakes on reform if it is going too fast and thinks that there will be delays in drawing up the new specifications. He is in two minds about the decoupling of AS and A2. “My instinct was to get rid of AS because I felt children were over-examined. But then I listened to some of the heads and deputies in my constituency who said they felt AS was quite important for some of their students; it helped to build their confidence and keep them in the sixth form.

“If it had been up to me I might have left it to the market and encouraged the development of linear A levels and let the schools decide and sort it out over time.”

Stuart says that he will continue to speak out, even when it is uncomfortable for his party’s leadership, a stance that is in tune with the new breed of independent-minded Conservative parliamentarians. The rather more outspoken nature of these backbenchers has been a tough thing for the Cameron administration to get used to, he says, although ministers are adjusting now, he thinks.

“Rather like me as a prefect, they are learning to work with people instead of fighting them.”

  • Liz Lightfoot is a freelance education writer.

Graham Stuart