British Labour MP criticised over remarks about nuns’ teaching

Tristram Hunt differentiated between ‘qualified teachers’ and teaching by nuns

British Labour MP Tristram Hunt: ‘I obviously meant no offence to nuns.’ Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

British Labour MP Tristram Hunt: ‘I obviously meant no offence to nuns.’ Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

 

Tristram Hunt, the British Labour MP who could be the next education secretary at Westminster after the May election, is facing mounting criticism for questioning nuns’ ability to teach.

On BBC1’s Question Time on Thursday, he said there was a “difference between having a state education system, with qualified teachers” and the teaching offered by nuns.

He ran into a wall of criticism. His fellow panellist on the programme, former Catholic Herald editor Cristina Odone accused the public school-educated Hunt of sneering at nuns, saying he had been “arrogant and ignorant”.

“Why is it acceptable to denigrate anything Catholic but bleat tolerance about every other religion? To know he and Labour stand a chance at the next election makes me fear for the 7,000 brilliant faith schools in this country.”

Mr Hunt’s remarks so close to the election are potentially problematic for Labour, given the numbers of parents who go to great lengths to get their children into Catholic schools in England, fee-paying or not.

He tweeted: “I was trying to make a generalised point about the use of unqualified teachers in schools. I obviously meant no offence to nuns.”

Under long-standing regulations, privately run schools have for years been able to use uncertified teachers in classes – though this does not mean the rapidly-declining numbers of nuns still in front of classes are lacking skills.

Following the 2010 general election, the Conservatives gave state schools similar freedom – which Labour has said it will overturn if it wins the upcoming general election, because it believes untrained people are entering classes.

Labour colleagues defended Mr Hunt, saying his remarks had been misunderstood. They argued that he had been drawing a distinction between unqualified teachers and nuns steeped in education, often for decades.

Mr Hunt’s comments came after Ms Odone said: “The most inspiring teachers I’ve ever encountered were not out of teacher-training college. You know what: they taught values.”

Last night, the director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber issued a strong defence of Catholic education, but declined to enter in a sparring match with Labour.

“Religious orders provided education in this country centuries before state funded education and they continue this work today. Hundreds of thousands of students – many of them “poor and vulnerable” – have been given a first-class education because of the dedication of generations of Catholic teachers, he said.