CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ #16 – Stephen Twigg & Lord Ashcroft

by Stephen Tall on October 5, 2012

ImageWelcome to the 16th in our series — Liberal Hero of the Week — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

The aim is to showcase public figures who help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. We highlight individuals regardless of their party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.

Stephen Twigg

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education.
Reason: For promoting the centrality of teaching in raising educational standards and the importance of local pay to public service improvements.

Stephen Twigg, the fresh-faced icon of New Labour’s ’97 landslide, has a tricky tightrope to walk as his party’s education spokesman. The party itself, and Twigg personally as schools minister, pioneered many of the policies now adopted by Michael Gove with such gusto — most notably academies — to which the bulk of the Labour membership has never been reconciled. As Ed Miliband found, even to utter the name of the Tory education secretary (a previous Liberal Hero) is guaranteed to draw boos from the conference crowd. And as one 15 year-old refugee from Iraq discovered when addressing Labour delegates yesterday even to be a pupil at an academy school means you run the risk of being heckled.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Twigg prefers to sidestep the issue of academies and free schools. Instead he is focusing his attention on how best to improve teaching in the classroom, a much less divisive issue — and a much less sexy topic — but one which has the potential to make the biggest difference in this country’s struggling schools. In his speech to the Labour conference, Stephen Twigg proposed ‘A New Deal for Teachers’:

… the key to One Nation Education is not the type of school but what happens in the classroom. Our education system is only as good as its staff. We should celebrate the school workforce – not just teachers and heads, but the caretakers, the teaching assistants, the dinner ladies. They are heroes. The best countries in the world for education see teaching as an elite profession for top graduates. Take teacher recruitment. In England we consider it a success when we fill every vacancy. But in Finland and South Korea, there are 10 applicants for every place. We have the best generation of teachers ever. But it can be even better. We will have a New Deal for Teachers.

All of this may sound soft-soap stuff, easy applause-lines to deliver at a Labour conference. True enough. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong either. And more to the point Twigg didn’t shirk from recognising some hard truths either. First, that recognising and investing in good teachers also means getting rid of poor teachers:

One way to improve teaching is to remove poor teachers. I want a teacher to have the same status as a doctor, but that means incompetent teachers must be removed.

And secondly, recognising that if you want to attract and retain teachers in tough areas you’re going to have to offer them some financial incentive:

I want to look at ideas like helping pay back your tuition fees, if you go to teach in a poorer area. Something for something.

Though he dared not say the words at a Labour conference, Stephen Twigg was acknowledging the case for local pay in public services. As I wrote in March:

Unsurprisingly, recruitment and retention rates in the most deprived parts of the country are well below those of the more affluent. Under normal market conditions, this would be reflected in the pay and conditions: tougher work would be better rewarded. In this country, we hope that our public sector ethos will somehow make up the difference, that there will be enough local heroes willing to undertake more demanding jobs for no extra remuneration. The evidence shows that such hope is as forlorn in reality as it sounds in theory.

(And if you want some of that evidence it’s well worth reading Professor Alison Wolf’s report for CentreForum on the issue, More than we bargained for: the social and economic costs of national wage bargaining.)

If there is one thing likely to make a profound, long-term difference to educational standards it is to ensure the best possible teaching takes place in all schools, regardless of their name or structure. Stephen Twigg is right to focus on helping good teachers to become better, showing poor teachers the door, and on giving schools which struggle to recruit in challenging areas the ability to attract staff by offering more attractive pay and conditions. It will be interesting to see if his honeyed words will be enough to win over the sceptics in his own party, but I wish him luck.

Honourable mention: Lord Ashcroft

Former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party
Reason: For his call for more grown-up politics

“Politicians are all the same” is one of the most tedious phrases you hear. And the most tedious thing is that, however unfair it is, it’s also hard not to deny there’s some truth to it. Too many politicians do defend policies they know to be wrong simply because they come from their own party, as Nick Clegg found on tuition fees. And too many politicians do indulge in juvenile tactics that would shame most juveniles even at their most delinquent.

So credit to Lord Ashcroft, long-standing Tory benefactor and funder of ConservativeHome, for labelling his party’s most recent campaign posters “a waste of money” which insult the intelligence of the public:

… it is easy to see why people in politics produce material like this: attacking your opponent is easier, not to say more fun, than setting out what you stand for and what you want to do. The Bottler Brown beer mats marking the non-election of October 2007 are another example. Such things may produce a welcome chortle in the office but to assemble a winning coalition of voters we must show strong leadership, display the right priorities, demonstrate that we’re on the side of the right people, and offer reassurance about our character and motives. Behaving like grown-ups would be a good start.

For this appeal for intelligent but robust political debate, I think Lord Ashcroft deserves a small-l liberal accolade.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.