© Felix Clay

Stephen Twigg’s career as a national politician is still best known for its first moments: he was the fresh-faced 30-year-old who took the Enfield Southgate seat of Michael Portillo, then defence secretary, at the 1997 landslide that swept Tony Blair to power.

Fifteen years on, he is back in parliament, representing a Liverpool constituency, and has a seat in the shadow cabinet covering education. This puts him up against Michael Gove, education secretary, a self-avowed follower of Blair.

Twigg would beg to differ: “The problem with [Gove’s] approach is that he has an ideological hostility to local government.” Twigg, a former schools minister, wants to repudiate the education secretary’s Blairite credentials.

The ruling coalition’s biggest reform drive has been to turn 1,590 schools into academies, up from 200 in May 2010. These schools are overseen not by local authorities but directly by the Department for Education.

This process used a modified version of the Blair era “academies” legislation. But asked whether he thinks the current regulatory system is near to a finished product, Twigg says: “We’re a thousand miles away.”

He adds: “We have to have an effective middle tier. We cannot have a position where two, three or four thousand schools are directly accountable to central government. We will have local accountability, which is vital.”

Twigg is conducting a review into this issue. “We will have academies and free schools that fail,” he says, “and it is not desirable or feasible for [responsibility for] spotting that to lie in Sanctuary Buildings [the Department for Education office in London].”

The former Islington councillor sees an important role for local authorities in accountability, particularly in spotting early signs of failure. “Quality in local government in education is higher now than it was 20 years ago,” he says.

But while he may defend local authorities, Twigg is distinctly Blairite on allowing private provision: “I am relaxed about different providers. That is what we did with our academies programme.”

He continues: “I am not at the Gove end of the system that says ‘Let’s have chaos’ – I completely reject that. But I am also not someone who thinks everything has to be directly provided by the local authority.” 

Twigg is also wary about free schools – new academies established from scratch by groups that wish to start a school. He says they are “an unguided missile – they are not part of any planned system”.

“What we did with the London Challenge [which provided training for teachers and school improvement across the capital] and the Labour Academies programme was a combination of greater school autonomy and diversity, but in a planned system.”

Citing the success of London, which now has some of the most effective state schools in England, Twigg says: “The fundamentals of that I think are still right. They provide an intelligent alternative to the chaos and dogma of Gove’s approach.”

Reflecting on the government’s drift towards regionalised pay, the shadow education secretary is also sceptical: “Moving to regional pay will lead to greater recruitment difficulties in areas of high social and economic need, and would lead to an increase in the overall pay bill.”

Twigg also suggests Gove’s tone is counterproductive: “I do think there is a serious issue about teacher morale. The language of ‘enemies of promise’ and headteachers as whingers – it seems particularly visceral from Gove.”

He continues: “It really does undermine their confidence. Yes, there are some teachers who shouldn’t be teaching, but the majority of teachers are good, and that should be constantly celebrated.”

Get alerts on Stephen Twigg when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article