Tristram Hunt MP

Working hard for Stoke-on-Trent Central

Home

Recent Activity

TRISTRAM HUNT – ENDING OUR CORROSIVE DIVIDE.

SPEECH TO WALTHAMSTOW ACADEMY – 25/11/14.

STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 10am on 25/11/14.

Thank you. It is a great pleasure to be here in Walthamstow. 

 

Birthplace of the Motor Car. 

 

Home to William Morris – ‘the greatest man whom the Socialist movement has yet claimed in this country,’ as Keir Hardie put it.

 

And where Benjamin Disraeli was educated.

 

So there are few more appropriate locations to give a speech about how we work together to turn our ‘two nations’ education system into a One Nation schools plan.  

 

Ladies and Gentleman, there can be little doubt that Britain is an increasingly divided country. 

 

Riven by growing disparities in the distribution of wealth, power and opportunity. 

 

Indeed, in so many communities across this country there is a deepening sense that the 21st century is leaving them behind. 

 

Robbing them of their civic pride, prosperity and purpose. 

 

And it falls to a One Nation Labour Party to overcome these divisions and restore our sense of a shared national mission. 

 

This morning I want to talk about one of those sources of division within British life. 

 

A divide that has become emblematic of a country run for the benefit of the privileged few not the many; 

 

The divide between private and state education.  

 

Now, I went to both state and private schools and learned a great deal at each. 

 

I was inspired by my great headteacher Mr Ellis at Milton Road Primary School to start to think for myself. 

 

And I learned from Mr Morris at University College School how to marshal my thoughts, make an argument, and enjoy history.

 

So I know that neither sector has a monopoly on success, excellence and expertise. 

 

What is more, before I became an MP, I worked as a history lecturer at the University of London where I came to understand the joy and wonder of teaching:  how they start to see the world differently, how you can excite them with ideas, how they can argue and learn from each other, how they can inform your own appreciation of the subject.

 

But my students also taught me that where they come from need not determine where they are going; 

 

that poverty need not cap aspiration; 

 

and that hard work and talent can overcome the highest of hurdles; 

 

Nevertheless, there was also no escaping the fact that students from some state schools had overcome so much more in order to get to University than those that went to certain private schools. 

 

And that insight continues to shape by job now as Shadow Education Secretary.  

 

Academies, community schools, sixth form and FE colleges I visit give me a daily demonstration in how strong leadership, rigorous teaching and a culture of high expectations can transform a young person’s prospects.  

 

I think of Ellowes Halls Sports College – the most outstanding comprehensive in the Black Country; Water Hall Primary School on the edge of Milton Keynes; or Severn Vale School in Gloucestershire.

 

Yet at the same time I know how poverty, unsupportive parenting and limited horizons can hold them back from fulfilling their potential. 

 

Ladies and Gentleman, we cannot afford to keep wasting the talent of our young people - it is the most precious resource our country has… 

 

…And the next Labour government will not stand by and watch the entrenchment of an education system that delivers excellence for the few whilst 1.6 million English children work hard to learn in state schools which “require improvement”. 

 

If we are to prosper as a country, we need to be a more equal country.

 

If we are to make the most of the wealth of talent that exists in every community, we need to give every child a chance.

 

And if we are to be a country which works for most people, we need to break down the divisions in our school system. 

 

I know I am not the first to say this. 

 

We have a Prime Minister who makes a virtue merely of pointing out this divide exists.

 

And we once had an Education Secretary called Michael Gove - remember him? - who declared he wanted to tear down a ‘Berlin Wall’ that divides state and private education.

 

But the crucial difference is this: I mean it.

 

So today, I will set out Labour’s plan to recast the relationship between private and state education; 

 

and finally breach a divide which corrodes our society, stifles opportunity and inflicts crippling damage upon our economy. 

 

 

THE THIRD INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

 

But first I want to illustrate the scale of the challenge this century poses. 

 

And the central importance of bridging this divide to it. 

 

Because my argument today is based upon an analysis that we find ourselves at a unique moment in our economic history.

 

A time when a powerful convergence of social forces are creating huge challenges and opportunities for our future prosperity and place in the world. 

 

Driverless cars; 

3D printers; 

Robots; 

Big Data; 

Artificial intelligence

The ‘Internet of Things’… 

 

… technology and globalisation are combining to ferment the ‘third’ industrial revolution. 

 

Which is beginning to create a digitally enhanced brave new world. 

 

According to one particularly gloomy Oxford University and Deloitte analysis this could see 35% of existing British jobs lost over the coming decades. 

 

Or, as I believe, this digital revolution could herald a new era of prosperity and power by helping spread wealth, freedom and opportunity to the many not the few. 

 

But to make it work for Britain we need big changes in our economy. 

 

To end the exploitation of poverty pay and zero hour contracts; 

 

To guarantee entrepreneurs get access to finance via a reformed banking sector;

 

To devolve £30 billion worth of funding to city and country regions, reversing a century of centralisation;

 

And, as Ed spelt out yesterday, training 400,000 extra engineers over the course of the next Parliament. 

 

We in the Labour Party will never accept that competition and change must come at the cost of social justice. 

 

 

Yet what history also shows is that there is only ever one serious response to the enormous skills-shift required during a proper, industrial revolution. 

 

only one solution with the power to spread prosperity and prospects to all. 

 

As William Forster said when creating state schooling in 1870: 

 

“Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity… if we leave our work-folk any longer unskilled they will become overmatched by the competition in the world”

 

As Rab Butler said when expanding it 1944: 

 

“When this war is over we shall depend more than anything else on the skill of our people. We must concentrate upon producing the most highly-skilled technologists the world can show. 

 

And as David Blunkett said when transforming it 2000: 

 

“We need to ensure that the majority not the minority have higher level skills and to ensure that in the 21st century, we as a nation, our companies and people can compete in the global economy”. 

 

From farm to factory, office to online - the answer is always the same: 

 

Great schooling for enquiring young minds; 

Transformative vocational training for technical rigour; 

And an enriching educational experience which cultivates character, resilience and grit. 

 

Because at every stage in our economic evolution, it is these vital educational ingredients which have proven to be the most effective way of spreading wealth, power and opportunity. 

 

 

A NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL MISSION

 

Yet in 2015 this national industrial mission will require more than a redoubling of our efforts to improve state education. 

 

Yes, we need a vocational training system that offers young people the opportunity to pursue excellence in technical education. 

 

Yes, we need an uncompromising reform programme to guarantee every child is taught by a world class teacher. 

 

And yes we need to broaden the horizons of disadvantaged children by increasing access to those activities proven to nurture their curiosity, motivation, self-control, discipline and grit. 

 

But if Britain is to pay its way in this increasingly uncertain world then we have to find new ways of equipping all our children with the skills, knowledge and character they need to succeed.

 

We need concerted, collaborative and co-ordinated action from the entire English educational landscape.

 

Including the private sector. 

 

Because the challenge of modern politics is that in this era of global competition and rapid change you must leverage every last drop of power to deliver fairness and opportunity to the many. 

 

And the truth is we do not need to look to East to find globally admired educational institutions, which combine high standards, great teaching, a love of liberal-learning and a holistic, character-focused curriculum. 

 

 

THE DOMINANCE OF THE FEW. 

 

It does not diminish state education to acknowledge that some of England’s private schools are respected all around the world. 

 

After all, their results speak for themselves. 

 

As Alan Milburn has persistently put forward: these schools account for just 7 per cent of all pupils in England yet provide more than 50 per cent of our CEOs, Lords, Barristers, Judges, QCs, Doctors, even journalists. 

 

They provide nine of the top-ten schools for progression to the Russell Group. 

 

And nearly two-thirds of their pupils win places at our top Universities - compared with just a quarter in the state sector. 

 

I do not believe that is a fair reflection upon the talent of everyone else. 

 

Nor do I believe it helps our country succeed when so many of these high aspiration jobs go to young people from a relatively small pool. 

 

Now, like David Cameron, I can utter meaningless rhetorical bromides about “spreading advantage”. 

 

I can continue to coax and cajole their heads for more of what Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has quite rightly called “crumbs off the table”.

 

And I can wring my hands and point out these institutions are betraying the express wishes of their founding fathers to educate “poor and indigent” scholars. 

 

Or, as Shadow Education Secretary for all of England’s schools, I can choose to do something about it. 

 

Because whether it is access to Russell Group Universities or the high-aspiration professions, the reality is that private school dominance cannot entirely be explained away by class prejudice or structural injustice 

 

It is also a fundamental question of educational opportunity and as such it requires an education-led response. 

 

Because our over-arching concern; the central question which speaks to our national industrial mission must be how to improve educational achievement in state schools? 

 

And we cannot let our task be compromised by an old and outdated divide.

 

After all, their teachers are trained by the state; 

 

they enjoy the advantages and securities which come with the state’s pension arrangements; 

 

and, thanks to their charitable status, they bank remarkable benefits from the state in terms of their tax concessions.

 

Business rate relief alone is worth almost £700 million over the course of Parliament. 

 

And my very simple question is this: are private schools doing enough to earn it? 

 

Some might argue that the expansion of English private schools into Singapore, China or Abu Dhabi represents an admirable flex of our soft power muscle. 

 

But I think British taxpayers would have some pretty serious questions if it emerged they were footing the bill. 

 

Subsidising the education of a privileged few here in Britain is one thing. 

 

Asking the taxpayer to bankroll opportunity for the global plutocracy another matter entirely. 

 

Then again some might argue that private schools are contributing in all kind of ways to Britain’s education system. 

 

Benefits that reach far beyond their own walls. 

 

But it is difficult to say when the Independent Schools Council is so unforthcoming with its statistics. 

 

Trust me, Sepp Blatter and co. need take no lessons in transparency from this lot. 

 

Nevertheless, so far as I work out: 

 

roughly 3 percent of private schools sponsor or co-sponsor an academy; 

 

a further 5 per cent loan teaching staff to a state school; 

 

whilst only a third even bother to open their doors for maintained school pupils to “attend certain lessons or other educational events”. 

 

On that basis then it would seem that Sir Michael Wilshaw is absolutely right to say their focus needs to be “less Dubai and more Derby”. 

 

And the only possible answer to whether they earn their £700m subsidy is a resounding and unequivocal: no. 

 

 

A NEW SETTLEMENT 

 

So it is time then for a new settlement between state education, private education and nation. 

 

And only the Labour Party can provide the leadership needed to deliver it. 

 

Because we are not interested in becoming embroiled in the politics of removing charitable status. 

 

Forget for a second that this approach has always failed - its real problem is a lack of ambition. 

 

Down that road lies a narrow solution which in the end will only increase isolationism.

 

We want to end division not entrench it; 

 

break barriers down not impoverish either side. 

 

Similarly, we are not interested in the patronising paternalism that believes inner city academies should behave like a home counties public school. 

 

That way fails to recognise the exceptional performance, culture, diversity and historical legacy of state schooling.  

 

The Labour Party would never sell state education short. 

 

We know that neither side of this divide has a monopoly on success. 

 

Our ambition is about celebrating success and sharing it; learning from one another through trust and collaboration; a reciprocal relationship where excellence moves in both directions. 

 

And in fact I agree with Sir Anthony Seldon that when private schools begin to engage in a deep and meaningful way with the state sector they will see the benefits are far richer than any up-front risk. 

 

Indeed, one only has to look at how United Learning’s partnership between 38 academies and 13 private schools to see the potential.

 

Teacher development, shared cultural and sporting experiences, support to improve access to the top universities – joint programmes have been developed that reach across this divide bringing benefits to both.

 

And that is beginning to have an impact here at Walthamstow Academy.

 

So is there anyone who seriously doubts there are skills, facilities and resources locked up in our private education system that would not benefit the state sector? 

 

Anyone who does not believe there is a tremendous opportunity here to improve both educational outcomes and social cohesion through deeper collaboration?  

 

I cannot accept it. 

 

Grinling Gibbons Primary; Watford Grammar; Thomas Telford School; here at Walthamstow Academy - many state schools now excel the private sector as institutions of extraordinary achievement and ambition. 

 

But when I visit state schools like Todmorden High School in Calderdale - so cruelly abandoned by the government’s Building Schools for the Future debacle - it is impossible not to reflect ruefully upon the tremendous opportunities that were afforded to me as part of my own privileged education. 

 

And to wonder at the transformative impact such access could have upon the horizons of disadvantaged children in constituencies like mine, where 36% of secondary age children are not yet educated at an acceptable level. 

 

 

THE SCHOOLS PARTNERSHIP STANDARD

 

So, today I can announce that the next Labour Government will amend the Independent Schools Regulations to introduce a new ‘Schools Partnership Standard’ that will require all state-subsidised private schools to form a hard-edged partnership with state schools. 

 

We will encourage individual institutions to reflect upon their skills, traditions and the educational needs of their locality. 

 

Yet we will be crystal clear when amending the regulations about what criteria schools will be judged upon to pass the standard. 

 

For example, as a bare minimum: 

 

All private schools should provide qualified teachers to help to deliver specialist subject knowledge to state schools. 

 

All secondary private schools should assist with expertise to help get disadvantaged state school kids into top class universities, including Oxbridge. 

 

And all private schools should run joint extra-curricular programmes where the state schools is an equal partner. 

 

This last point is particularly important. 

 

Because I have to say it baffles me that we can have private schools loaning a sports pitch to the local comprehensive once or twice a year yet completely refusing to play them at football… 

 

…opening up their halls and amphitheatres yet unwilling to engage in a debating competition.  

 

Social enterprises such as Debate Mate have shown how rewarding it is to set up debate clubs in high disadvantage state schools – including at this one.

 

And it is hardly difficult to join the local sports leagues. 

 

So I see absolutely no reason why private schools should persist with their exclusive private-only competitions. 

 

And we would look to include regular participation in competitive extra-curricular activities with state schools as part of this settlement. 

 

But we will also pass new legislation which amends the 1988 Local Government Act so that private schools’ business rate relief becomes conditional upon passing the Schools Partnership Standard. 

 

And we will make sure the Independent Schools Inspectorate demonstrates the rigour its sector is renowned for - and assess private schools commitment to this standard as part of their inspection cycle. 

 

 

PLAY YOUR PART

 

Of course I realise that to some this may seem an unnecessarily tough test. 

 

But that is not because I want to penalise private education but because I want to make sure we break down the barriers holding Britain back.

 

I want private schools to run summer schools; sponsor academies; support the training of qualified teachers in subject knowledge; assist in the running of state boarding schools; run mentoring and enrichment programmes, lead teaching school alliances, tap into alumni networks for careers and work experience; nurture character; and prepare disadvantaged pupils for challenging university interviews. 

 

Because I passionately believe we deserve an education system where the majority of young people enjoy the same access to excellence as the privileged 7 per cent; 

 

where disadvantaged pupils no longer feel any anxiety or insecurity at aspiring towards success because they feel success belongs to them;  

 

and where our children experience equality of opportunity rather than just learn it is one of our core values; 

 

But most of all I want us to become a country where we no longer feel the need to point out how few state educated members there are in the top universities, professions and sports teams because that description simply no longer rings true. 

 

That is the prize we are chasing with this new partnership. 

 

And believe me: clawing back business rate relief will be a poor consolation if we do not bring it about. 

 

Yet, frankly, over the last few years we have seen the limitations of asking private schools politely. 

 

So the next government will say to them: step up and play your part. 

 

Earn your keep.

 

Live up to your founding ideals.

 

Take your parents and pupils with you, celebrating a broader ethos of education and partnership. 

 

Because the time when you could expect something for nothing is over. 

 

 

RADICAL REFORM

 

And arguably not a moment too soon either.  

 

Because these are tough, challenging and exciting times in which to live. 

 

And attempting to breach this divide has a long and baleful history. 

 

Labour has, in the past, made progress with cancelling the Assisted Places Programme.

 

Urging the Charities Commission to hold schools to account.

 

And with Andrew Adonis’s sponsored academy programme, creating a liberating schools movement that encouraged schools such as Liverpool College to come directly into the state sector.

 

Now we take the next step.

 

Ed Miliband has spelt out we must meet radical times with equally radical reform.  

 

To raise achievement;

To broaden horizons; 

To spread excellence;

To boost cohesion; 

 

That is our challenge; 

This is the change; 

And now is our chance. 

 

Our future prosperity, social solidarity and place in the world may just depend on it. 

 

Thank you.

LABOUR’S PLAN TO TRANSFORM THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STATE AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS

TRISTRAM HUNT – ENDING OUR CORROSIVE DIVIDE. SPEECH TO WALTHAMSTOW ACADEMY – 25/11/14. STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 10am on 25/11/14. Thank you. It is a great pleasure to be here in...

READ the full article here

When Gavin Pierpoint applied to Stoke council to become the owner of a £1 house in April 2013, his expectations were not high. For one thing, there was the selection process to get through, during which he would have to prove not only that he was capable of paying back the loan the council would make him for the property’s renovation – such a loan was a condition of sale – but that he was fully committed to becoming part of a community. For another, he couldn’t quite believe the council would fulfil its promises. Would these terraces, empty for several years, really be renovated to a decent standard? And how long would it take? At the back of his mind, too, were his anxieties about the area. “I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned,” he says. “The boarded-up houses, the fly-tipping, the squatters; the reputation of these streets for prostitutes and drugs. I wondered how the people who lived here tolerated that, and what that [tolerance] meant for me.” By the time he found out that he was indeed one of the lucky ones – the council had 35 such properties on its books – he was well beyond excitement. “I left that to my mum,” he says, with a smile. “She was very excited. Even now she still sneaks in the occasional bowl of pot pourri.”

The council put the new homeowners’ names in one hat, and the addresses in the other, and matched them at random, the better to be fair. Pierpoint’s house is in Rutland Street, smack in the middle of the grid of 19th-century terraces. To reach these marooned streets, cruelly bordered by major roads and retail parks, you must go down the hill from the centre of Hanley, one of the six towns that the city of Stoke comprises (the others are Tunstall, Burslem, Stoke, Fenton and Longton) – a walk that would be unnerving at night, particularly for a woman alone. Once you’re here, though, the atmosphere is suddenly and unexpectedly hushed, as if you’d stepped into snow. The terraces have a protected feeling, hunkered as they are shoulder-to-shoulder against the world. A pessimist might see only the “for auction” signs, the rubbish that disgraces some of the alleys running between them. But I’m quite the Pollyanna when it comes to property, chalking up instead the freshly painted doors, the new blinds, the tubs of flowers.

Pierpoint, 26, is a civil servant. After university in Newcastle, he returned to Stoke, where he grew up, drawn back by friends and family. Thanks to his salary, renting a flat wasn’t a problem, and nor would a mortgage have been any trouble had he been able to save a deposit; the council’s £1 house scheme appealed because it gave him the chance to own his own place without the need of such a lump sum. Each of the properties in this scheme cost the council £30,000 to renovate, and like all the other £1 house owners – the description makes for a neat headline, even if it is not quite true – he will pay back a loan for this amount over 10 years at a cost of £293 a month, at the end of which he will be mortgage-free. Should he sell the house within five years, the council will claim any profit. Should he sell it before 10 years are out, the council will take a share of the profit, on a sliding scale (in year six, for instance, they would take 20%, and so on). Not that he is thinking of selling any time soon. “I like this house,” he says. “I like the high ceilings: they make the rooms feel bigger.” The terrace is a traditional two-up, two-down, with a kitchen and, beyond it, a bathroom in a single-storey extension in the back yard, cosy yet relatively spacious. What more could he want?

But it’s not only his immaculate laminate floors and the lime-green walls of his made-over bathroom that will keep him here. The commitment he made in his application, the one in which he made it clear he planned on sticking around, wasn’t hot air. In this sense, the council’s undoubted rigour in selecting its new home owners has paid off. “I do want to make a difference,” he says. “I do want to help to improve the area. There’s no reason why it should be so down.” The council has matched this pledge and others like it with one of its own, which is that this nascent community will be supported in the months and years to come. “The people I mentioned, the ones I thought tolerated the antisocial behaviour. Now I’ve met them, I realise that they were worried, too, and they just didn’t know where to go. But since we moved in, we’ve been told exactly who to report things to.” The team in the housing department that is responsible for the Portland Street project is keen to encourage community bonding, and regular meetings are now held for residents: in the near future, they will even be allowed to decide whether the council spends some cash it has available on green spaces or on reopening the community centre. “We had a clean-up weekend recently. About 50 people attended, a good mix of old and new. There was some initial concern [among existing residents] that things were only being done for us. But people know now that whatever is done benefits everyone.”

Two streets away, Chris Benn and Rebecca Dennis, who are also part of the scheme, agree. “Our next-door neighbour is an Italian man who has owned his house since 1956,” says Dennis. “He’s seen the area go right down, and he would really like to see it go back up. He’s been lovely to us.” Benn and Dennis are thrilled with their £1 house, and all the more so because when they first applied to the scheme, they were turned down on financial grounds: Benn, a fitter in a car factory, is not on a fixed contract, so Dennis, a photography student at Stoke university, had to increase her own hours in order for them to bag a property. (“When I’m not at uni, I have two jobs,” she says. “I work in Asda, and then at the weekends, I sew teddy bears in a factory.”) After only a few weeks, the couple, who are engaged, already feel an emotional connection with their new home, telling me that should they ever decide to move on, they couldn’t countenance the idea of renting it out. “They might trash it,” says Dennis, uncertainly.

Moving to the front window, she points out a CCTV camera to me, a recent innovation designed to stop the fly tippers who would come from as far away as Sheffield and Leeds in the days when many of the houses were empty. “It has already made a difference,” she says. We consider the backs of the houses opposite. Her own, she feels, has the edge on these: unusually, the bathroom is upstairs. Is Stoke a good place to live? For her and Benn, it’s home: they both come from families who worked “in the pots”. But she likes it for its own sake as well. The Potteries Shopping Centre – after a while, you get used to the fact that almost everything here seems to begin with the P-word – might not have a branch of Zara, but there are compensations. “Other places don’t have bottle ovens,” she says. “And they’re beautiful.” She’s right about this. No two bottle ovens (the bottle-shaped kilns in which earthenware was traditionally fired) are the same, built as they were on the whim of the pot bank (ie factory) owners. In Stoke’s heyday, there were 2,000 of them. Now, just 47 remain. Walk out of Benn and Dennis’s door, and stroll to the end of Portland Street, and you can see one looming incongruously beside the dual carriageway, like a church spire gone wrong.

Back in Rutland Street I meet Rachel Roberts, a 31-year-old graphic designer. Roberts was one of the first to be accepted on the scheme, thanks in part to her strong connections with the area (the council was particularly keen to help those with existing links to Portland Street). “One set of my father’s grandparents lived on this street, and the other set lived two streets down. My great aunt Millie still lives two streets down; she’s lived there all her life.” From the Saturday-morning comfort of a new sofa, she contemplates her future. “I see this as my home. I want to get the loan paid off at least, and in that time I would like the area to get back to being more as my dad remembers it. I know things can’t happen overnight, and the streets do get loud at night, shouting and so on. But things are starting to change. My neighbours are lovely, and one has told me how much warmer her house is now the one next to it is no longer empty. I’m very keen to be involved in regeneration. I would love, for instance, the alleys to be repurposed as community gardens.” More vocal than some on the scheme, she would also like it to be a beacon, an example to councils everywhere. “New builds,” she says, with a sniff. “They’re very small. Sometimes, they go up in just a few weeks. But these houses have stood the test of time. I think the council’s better off renovating them than knocking them down.”

 

The Portland Street area, as she is well aware, was another unhappy victim of the Labour government’s Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders Programme – aka the Pathfinder scheme – a wilfully stupid and ultimately doomed project that has left many miles of terraced houses standing empty across cities in the north and the Midlands. It was begun in 2002 by the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott. The idea, in essence, was that Victorian housing would be demolished and replaced with new builds, and thus that failing housing markets in deprived areas would be renewed. It was controversial from the beginning, its opponents – the most magnificent of which was, and still is, Save Britain’s Heritage – arguing that a vital element of our built environment was being unnecessarily lost, and that the scheme amounted, as longstanding residents were moved on, to social cleansing. Many local people began campaigns against it. Some were forcibly evicted. What made the situation worse, however, was the change of government in 2010. The money dried up. Houses awaiting demolition were now left to rot. Residents who had not yet moved out were left stranded. In the case of Portland Street, Stoke council had bought up some houses from private owners, planning to demolish them. But that was no longer possible. The only money available now in terms of grants came from a new government keen to see empty homes – there are 5,000 such buildings in Stoke – brought back into use.

 

Will other councils look at Stoke, and follow suit? We must pray that they do, given how many perfectly good Victorian houses now stand empty, mournfully “tinned up” against the vandals. (Liverpool did, in fact, launch its own £1 scheme, but it has failed thus far, for the simple reason that new owners were required to pay for their own renovations – an increasingly expensive and terrifying prospect for most buyers, given the neglect inflicted on these homes.) The Portland Street project, it’s already evident, has benefits for both existing residents and the new owners, on the housing ladder at last. “My gut instinct is that it’s working,” says Zainul Pirmohamed, the programme manager whose idea the scheme was (she heard of a similar programme in Rotterdam while attending a conference there). “But this isn’t just a lick of paint. This is a 10-year project.” It’s also about more than money – though she believes it is proving to be highly cost-effective. “It’s bigger than that,” she insists. The scheme is also about such romantic and nebulous things as community, heritage, the fraught relationship between the past and the future. Such issues are complex wherever they occur: how does a place move on when the very reason for its existence has been virtually wiped out? But perhaps they will never be more fraught than in Stoke-on-Trent, a city that is not quite a city, and whose parochial otherness must be experienced to be believed: a place that is so central and yet feels so cut off, that is so very ugly and yet maintains the capacity to stun the visitor into silence with its unlikely beauty. If there is hope for poor benighted Stoke, the thinking goes, then there is hope for us all.

In a memoir of his 1930s Potteries childhood, The Vanished Landscape, historian Paul Johnson describes his father taking him to see the Sytch in Burslem, an immense stretch of ground composed of clay, black water, mud, industrial detritus and “fumigerous furnaces belching forth fire, ashes and smoke”. This was the “dark heart” of the Potteries, and the young Johnson was goggle-eyed at the sight of its inky slime; gazing at it, he understood why its name was spoken in an undertone even by Potteries “patriots”, why those who lived there were reluctant to admit to their address. But as he also knew, such coyness was the exception. Mostly, the fiery blackness of the Potteries – “this is what hell will be like,” his mother used to tell him, as they stared out at the “volcano nightscape” – was the source of a strange kind of pride. “There’s no wealth w’out muck,” people would say. Or, as one put it: “All progress comes fro’ sludge.”

 

During the 1950s there was full employment in Stoke-on-Trent, with around 70,000 people employed by the potteries. Today, that figure is 10,000. 

 

And what wealth there was. The Potteries, it’s true, kept their workers, often women doing piecework, in low wages. But the boom that began in the 18th century – when it was discovered that if ground flint was added to local clay, covetable creamware could be produced – made the factory owners exceedingly rich, and with their money they built: look around the six towns, and you’ll find some of the most invincible-looking public buildings in Britain. Such civic pride is contagious, and it helped also to fund places such as the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem, named after the greatest potter of them all, Josiah Wedgwood, whose statue greets you as you emerge from Stoke station (funded by subscription and decorated with a series of terracotta panels depicting the processes involved in pottery, the Institute once housed the Burslem School of Art, where Johnson’s father was headmaster, and where such designers as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper were trained; it now stands, like so many buildings in the six towns, unaccountably empty). There was full employment in Stoke-on-Trent, which was granted city status in 1925, the six towns having become a federation some 15 years before (as well as the ceramics industry, there was steel to be forged and coal to be mined), and those who worked in the pots were highly skilled and proud to be associated with such names as Spode, Burleigh, Doulton, Minton and Wedgwood. How could they not be? In the Potteries Museum in Hanley, home of the largest collection of Staffordshire pottery in the world, I stood in front of the fabulous Minton peacock, an earthenware bird perched on an elaborately rocky plinth that in 1873 was fired in one piece in spite of its fantastical size, and wondered if there was anything the potters could not have made. These were businesses, but what wonders they produced, what art.

 

Then – you know what’s coming – disaster. The 1980s finished off Stoke’s pits, just as they did everywhere else. The steel industry floundered and disappeared. The potteries struggled on – everyone will tell you that Stoke only noticed what terrible trouble it was in long after other cities – but then they, too, looked like giving up the ghost. Production moved to China, where labour costs were cheaper. Many factories closed. Others shrank radically. Meanwhile, a new generation gave up on the idea of “best” china, the kind that was treasured and stowed in a sideboard till Sunday. Cheaper, mass-produced dinner services were now the order of the day – and they could be made anywhere. Today, an industry that once employed 70,000 people provides jobs for just under 10,000. It’s not hard to find symbols of this decimation. Among the saddest sights of all is that of the derelict Spode factory, which stands on a site acquired by Josiah Spode in 1776. Unoccupied since 2008, it is deteriorating rapidly (the council acquired it in 2010). Its magnificent China Hall, whose windows were positioned in order to secure the best light for painting china, is used for the British Ceramics Biennial (the fourth will be held in 2015), but otherwise it stands empty. This is all the more outrageous when you consider that it’s largely thanks to this building that the town of Stoke, which grew up around it, exists at all.

 

But the Potteries are not done yet. More recently, there has been a shift. The sense is that things are starting to change. Labour costs are rising in China, while British products are ever more sought after in the luxury market. Both factors stand to benefit Stoke. Factories have begun to take on more workers, and to bring some production back to the UK. Some are running at capacity; they fire seven days a week; profits are rising. (In order to meet his deadline at the Tower of London, it was to a Tunstall-based pottery that artist Paul Cummins, one of the creators ofBlood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, turned for the hurried manufacture of more poppies last July.) A few companies, such as Steelite in Middleport, which sells to the catering industry, are growing exponentially.

 

Meanwhile, and more romantically, there are smaller newcomers, designers who have fallen in love with Stoke: Emma Bridgewater, who bought the Victorian Eastwood Works from Wedgwood in 1996 and now produces all her ceramics in the city, using methods Josiah himself would recognise (it tells you something that Bridgewater’s PR manager, Hannah Ault, is a Stoke girl – her father is in clay – who has returned after a long period in London, during which she worked at, among other places, Prada); and Reiko Kaneko, a young Japanese-British designer, who moved to Stoke from London to be near the Longton company that makes her porcelain wares, and to draw on the experience of the city’s mould and pattern-makers. “If something goes wrong with your kiln, you get it fixed here the next day, no problem,” she says, with a laugh. “It [ceramics] is in the blood here. In London, I worked in a building full of supposedly creative people. But everyone here is so much more fascinating to me. I love working with them, and they understand the value of my products, of the hand finishing, the fact that it’s labour-intensive.” Next year, she is to open a showroom in Stoke; she hopes it will become part of the city’s Ceramics Trail, part of its tourist initiative.

It’s not difficult to find people who will give you good news. “We’re putting on additional shifts,” says Brett Phillips, the finance director at Portmeirion and a man who strikes me as not remotely inclined to hyperbole or unnecessary optimism (a relative newcomer in terms of the Potteries – it was founded in 1 960 by Susan Williams-Ellis – Portmeirion also owns Spode and Royal Worcester, which it acquired in 2009). “We produce 50% of our overall production in Stoke. All our earthenware is made here. At the moment, demand is at about 170,000 pieces of best quality a week, and we’re just about managing to keep up. Capital investment will be next, and that’s likely to be substantial. Tunnel kilns cost around £750,000, and you need three in a factory this size.” Is it important to be in Stoke, or could that investment be made anywhere? “No, it’s important to be here. There is a still a skill base in Stoke. But there is also a cachet that comes with the heritage, particularly abroad.” What he says next amazes me. “Our third-largest market is South Korea, and they buy our most important pattern, Botanic Garden, almost exclusively. It’s the leading imported tableware brand in South Korea by miles, and it commands a premium price largely because it is made in Britain.” My stepmother’s china was Botanic Garden. Launched in 1972, it is decorated with floral illustrations from Thomas Green’s Botanical Dictionary. How peculiar that it should turn out to be the ceramic equivalent of Burberry.

 

Knowing all this, it’s surprising to find a local MP urging caution. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, has represented Stoke-on-Trent Central since 2010, when he was controversially parachuted into the safe seat (though he is now well liked in the city; people like his enthusiasm, and the fact that he doesn’t change his voice when he talks to them). “We might get the [employment] figures up to 15,000,” he says, when I meet him in the cafe at Bridgewater. “But you have to be realistic. Companies that are growing are also investing in mechanisation; where 14 pairs of hands used to touch every piece of ware, now only two do.” Even stranger, given that he is a historian with a special interest in the 19th century (his last book Ten Cities That Made an Empire includes a chapter on Liverpool), he seems wary of the past: “Finding a use for old bottle kilns is hard,” he says. Labour MPs do have a recidivist streak when it comes to housing – the Pathfinder scheme fatally ignored the lessons of the 1960s – but it’s frustrating that he won’t acknowledge that Prescott’s plan was a disaster, and dispiriting to hear him speak rather robotically of “uniform late Victorian housing of variable quality built on shaky land” (though even he seems to think the £1 scheme is an idea that might just work). Perhaps he’s just learned to talk local, having previously criticised the Labour council for its “obliteration” of the past. But then… what’s this? Ah, he can’t help himself, after all. “We should look to the era of Wedgwood,” he says, suddenly. “The era of entrepreneurs, designers, small companies, innovation.” Was he surprised by how fast the money was raised to save the Wedgwood Collection, one of the most important archives in the world? (A public appeal earlier this year met its target of £2.74m two months early, £15m having already been raised by grants and significant donations – a quite astonishing display of understanding and affection for the collection). “Am I not a man and brother?” he says, quoting Josiah Wedgwood’s celebrated anti-slavery cameo. “Emotions are so important, and brands are emotions…” This isn’t exactly an answer, but it’s quite endearing nevertheless.

 

Paul Johnson called his book The Vanished Landscape with good reason. So much has been lost. “The jolie laide had had a drastic facelift…” he writes, visiting the city after a long absence. “But in the process she had lost her strange, romantic beauty; and, I suspect, her soul.” Is this true? Perhaps. Stoke does resemble a mouth that is missing several teeth. The dual carriageways and retail sheds do the place no favours. The destruction needs to stop. There needs to be more of a plan if the towns are ever to become, as Tristram Hunt hopes they will, a new “centre of excellence” for ceramics (links with Central St Martin’s and the V&A are strengthening). As Matthew Rice (the husband of Emma Bridgewater, and one of the city’s most passionate advocates) urges in his book, The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent: “Don’t knock down another thing. Not another tidy dark-bricked terrace or crumbling factory. Not a gate pier, Minton tile or boot scraper of it. Not until we know how to put it right…” Such remnants are, he believes, an anchor “to hold fast” while the place rethinks its character.

 

Who could disagree with this? I spend my best hours in Stoke under the gentle tutelage of Fred Hughes, ex-policeman, former Labour councillor, former columnist at the Sentinel. Hughes was involved in the campaign to save the Bethesda Chapel, the “cathedral of the Potteries”, which you may remember from the BBC’s Restoration series, and he makes for a wonderful guide. It’s with him that I see the things that could make a person fall in love with the city: the chapel itself, which dates from the early 19th century and feels like some wondrous galleon as you stand on the bridge of its pulpit; the Burslem School of Art of 1905, with its generous studio windows, such a fine symbol of skill and self- improvement; and, best of all, the Middleport Pottery, the home of Burleigh. Acquired by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust in 2011, Middleport is still a working factory (half of the site is leased to Burleigh, whose ware has been made here since 1888), but it’s the buildings that stir you, not the pots, their preservation an achievement and a blessing, whatever you think of HRH: the blackened brick; the mahogany offices; the hand-written order books. Together, Fred and I walk up to Middleport’s single remaining bottle kiln. In Stoke, so much that was solid has melted into air. But not this. To the touch, it feels as indomitable as the hills.

 

 

 

Rachel Cooke in The Observer: The £1 houses and thriving potteries that are making Stoke boom again

READ the full article here When Gavin Pierpoint applied to Stoke council to become the owner of a £1 house in April 2013, his expectations were not high. For one...

Tristram Hunt MP visited Stoke-on-Trent's Unity School to meet with teachers, support staff and pupils.

Tristram was shown around the school and was given the opportunity to observe the work teaching staff do with pupils referred from local schools because of behavioural problems.

 unity_TH.jpg

Tristram commented: "It was a wonderful opportunity to be given the chance to visit the Unity School and see first-hand what great work the staff here do to provide a good education to their pupils"

"The Unity School demonstrates what can be achieved in difficult circumstances through excellent teacher quality and dedicated support staff."

Tristram Hunt visits Unity School

Tristram Hunt MP visited Stoke-on-Trent's Unity School to meet with teachers, support staff and pupils. Tristram was shown around the school and was given the opportunity to observe the work...


View More Activities

The Labour Party will place cookies on your computer to help us make this website better.

Please read this to review the updates about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site.

To find out more about these cookies, see our privacy notice. Use of this site confirms your acceptance of these cookies.