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News Graham Stuart: 'You can't drive education like a sports car'
The Conservative chairman of the education select committee, Graham Stuart, is not afraid to speak his mind – even about Michael Gove
Has any minister ever had as rough a ride from MPs as Michael Gove from the education select committee? On academies and free schools, the introduction of the English baccalaureate, the scrapping of GCSEs, the reform of A-levels, the reform of examination boards and the replacement of education maintenance allowances, the committee has criticised the secretary of state for "rushed and ill-thought-out changes". Its reports read like those of an exasperated teacher dealing with a hyperactive, inattentive and sloppy pupil. Its verdict on plans to replace GCSEs was typical: "trying to do too much, too fast … not seen any evidence to suggest that the proposed changes will be more successful than GCSEs … [should] pay the most serious attention to the concerns expressed by experts in the field".
Graham Stuart, the committee's Conservative chair, prides himself on not mincing his words and he certainly doesn't mince them on Gove. "It takes a long time to implement change in education. It's an enormous tanker of an operation and it's not appropriate to have someone at the wheel who thinks it's a sports car and tries to spin the wheel accordingly. It's important to recognise the physics. You have a small window to make a difference, but you can't make a difference if it isn't sustainable beyond your period in power. A reform needs to survive the long term."
But Stuart insists that none of this means Gove is a failure. "On GCSEs, he listened to the evidence we put to him and made adjustments. He's better than his predecessor Ed Balls. Balls brought forward proposals for a diploma and everybody said the timetable was wrong. He wouldn't listen, he didn't blink, he had no disastrous day of U-turn headlines. He persisted with a qualification that led parents and students up the garden path and has now withered on the vine.
"Michael has a clear idea of what he wants to do and a good record of doing what he says. He provides certainty of direction, which is a rare quality in a minister."
Would Stuart vote for Gove as Tory leader? "He's made it quite clear that he doesn't expect to stand." But what if he did? "Like all politicians, I avoid answering questions based on clever hypotheticals." Which we should probably take as a "no".
I talked to Stuart, on his 51st birthday, for nearly two hours in his office and this was just about the only time he gave a one-sentence answer. Otherwise, words tumbled from him at giddying speed and considerable length, mostly on predictable Tory lines. He describes himself as socially liberal, economically dry. "I'm a deficit hawk," he says. He wants public spending cut faster (while his own committee's reports haven't urged any cuts at all), deplores "welfare dependency" and positions himself as a mild Eurosceptic.
If you think these attitudes echo the prime minister's, you'd be right. Just after entering the Commons in 2005, Stuart voted for Cameron as leader and he is regarded by fellow MPs as a loyalist. Yet as Barry Sheerman, his predecessor in the select committee chair, observes, there's a touch of flamboyance about him. He sometimes gets strange bees in his bonnet, such as when he supported parents educating their children at home who objected to annual checks on what they were teaching. These would violate the "right to private and family life", he said. "He was totally taken over by a middle-class and rather ruthless lobby group," Sheerman says. "He couldn't see the dangers to vulnerable children."
Stuart was born in Carlisle. His mother was a nurse, his father, born in a Glasgow council house, a consultant anaesthetist whom Stuart describes, a little dismissively, as "a grafter". He went to Glenalmond, one of Scotland's poshest boarding schools. "My parents impoverished themselves to pay the fees," he says. "My father wore very shiny shoes, which, when you looked at the sides, you could see were cracked."
Stuart didn't like school at all, and becomes quite animated about it. "It wasn't a brutal school. It wasn't all cold showers and perpetual beatings. I just remember the oppressive proximity to so many others and the scruffy environment, the disgusting piece of modern art that had stains and cuts on it, the chipped furniture and chipped rococo, people gurgling away on bottles of Coke as they ate. Out of 31 terms of schooling [including prep school], I only enjoyed the last." He also says he read Solzhenitsyn, Kundera and other Soviet bloc dissidents at school and, perhaps (this is my speculation, not his), an unhappy adolescent soul sensed parallels between totalitarian socialism and the communal, institutionalised life of boarding schools. At any rate, he emerged with a loathing of anything that put the group above the individual and decided he would become a Conservative politician.
The plan was to take a law degree, become a barrister and then enter politics. But at Selwyn College, Cambridge, he started a "What's on in Cambridge" guide, with no startup capital except a small loan from the printer. He made so much money that he lost interest in law, which required him to master too much boring detail, and failed his exams. "I'd decided to become an entrepreneur and create lots of jobs. I was very disapproving of students going into the City, laundering other people's money."
The business expanded, publishing food guides, style glossies, and magazines about boats and jetskis. It made him wealthy, though not sensationally so. In 1998, he became the first Tory in six years to be elected to Cambridge city council and, as a council representative, he acquired an interest in education through becoming governor of a "failing school". He fought Cambridge unsuccessfully for the Tories in the 2001 general election, and in 2005 won the rural and coastal constituency of Beverley and Holderness in east Yorkshire. He joined the education (then children, schools and families) select committee in 2007. His vague ambitions for ministerial office weren't furthered when he told Cameron in 2010, the day before the new team was selected, where he thought the Tory election campaign went wrong. "He's not likely to get anything now," a fellow MP told me. "He doesn't really cultivate political allies."
Soon after his election, he led successful protests against plans to close hospitals in his constituency. That led to a national, cross-party campaign for community hospitals, which is the political achievement of which he is most proud. "We won the argument with a government that was not of my party." Stuart is clearly an assiduous constituency MP whose website records that his latest triumph was to persuade Royal Mail to reinstate a postbox.
Otherwise, he seems a typical modern Tory – a businessman who sent two daughters to a fee-charging day school in York and holds an unshakeable faith in private enterprise. Yet there's a strain of scepticism and independent thinking. Though he likes free schools in principle, he's less enamoured of them than you'd expect because, he says, "when you have a basic shortage of school places, it seems odd to have new schools in areas where there are no demographic problems". He doesn't think the number of free schools will become statistically significant until they are allowed to make profits, but he isn't an evangelist for profit-making: "I'm not persuaded that the lack of for-profit schools is the great missing link in English education."
Again, he's not as strongly for traditional exams as you'd expect. Gove's claim that abolishing modules and "internal assessment" in favour of "linear assessment" would benefit the disadvantaged was brusquely demolished by the select committee. "Insufficient evidence," the committee ruled. I suggest to Stuart that cherry-picking evidence to suit what he wants to do is one of Gove's many faults. "I think that is a fair criticism," he says but adds that all politicians do it because the experts never give a definitive answer.
He's particularly eloquent on what he calls "perverse incentives" in English education. "Politicians of all parties say they want to close the attainment gap between rich and poor. But we're incentivising heads and teachers to keep away from the schools we want to improve because accountability is based on raw test scores and exam results instead of contextualised data. Teachers know that, when a school has entrants of low prior attainment, they've got zero chance of recording above-average progress and that affects their career prospects. They are incentivised either to avoid working at the school or to screen its entrants and tell parents of those with special needs they'd be better off at the school down the road.
"The playing field is slanted in the opposite direction to what government policy says it wants. Until I get grief from my constituents in leafy suburbs, complaining about their heads and teachers being tempted away to the inner-cities, we won't make any progress." If Stuart can persuade Gove, MP for the distinctly leafy Surrey Heath, of that view, even Guardian readers may applaud.