18th May 2015
High Hopes for Nicky Morgan’s New Term
If the Education Secretary can hold her nerve against “the Blob”, she will end her term of office with an excellent report
It’s a new term for education secretary Nicky Morgan, and we all hope to see a fine report at the end of it. She represents a less divisive figure than her predecessor, Michael Gove, but it will be interesting to see whether she can replicate some of his unquestionable energy, conviction and love of detail – not always such a bad thing in terms of making things happen.
Mrs Morgan’s pre-election impact was somewhat minimised by three factors: time; the need to be self-evidently less abrasive and more teacher-friendly than her predecessor; and a preoccupation with winning her (then) marginal seat. Nevertheless, she has already shown that she takes her brief seriously, and, in her calm way, clearly intends to achieve demonstrable change. Her manner before an audience is consensual and good-spirited in a way that most teachers will welcome.
There is plenty to do. A level and GCSE reform is underway but will need close attention – and sometimes passionate defence. She must find school places for a pupil population boom. The Conservatives are committed to building over 500 free schools. “Failing and coasting” schools will be converted to academies; schools rated by Ofsted as “requiring improvement” will have new head teachers. “Tough new standards” for literacy and numeracy in primary schools are promised, and a much-needed focus on skills and vocational training underlines the pledge to provide University Technology Colleges “within reach of every city”.
The question now is whether she has the single-minded urgency, thickness of skin and sense of conviction that are required to get good ideas past the indolence and self-righteousness of too many in the upper echelons of the educational establishment, including some in the department which is meant to serve her.
If she hasn’t seen enough evidence already, she will soon detect the steady and near-universal drip-feed of negativity about any attempt by a Conservative government to improve primary and secondary schools. The task is vast: not because the answers are beyond the wit of man, but because each generation of educationists has complacently handed to its successors expensively wrapped parcels of failure, foolishness and self-delusion as if they were gifts from the gods.
These meaningless achievements reached their dismal apogee in the Blair/Brown years when an extra £40bn was poured into schools with no evidence of any improvement at all, as rafts of international benchmarking tests have shown ever since.
One-time inner city history teacher, Robert Peal, wrote with rare clarity in Standpoint magazine last year about this utter waste of public funds on educational follies. “The money was spent on a bewildering array of initiatives and strategies, whose Panglossian slogans now mock their total lack of impact: ‘excellence in cities’, ‘fresh start’, ‘building brighter futures’, ‘every child a reader’ … and so on.” As Peal also points out, from 2001 there were no fewer than five Labour Secretaries for Education, each averaging less than two years in post. This ceaseless merry-go-round of ministers prevented any sense of sustained purpose or long-term seriousness about how best to run our schools.
I still remember a particularly dismal conference I attended at the Department for Education some years back. At the time, it was Ed Balls who was one of these “just visiting” placemen. His address was casual and perfunctory and he could hardly have made it clearer that he viewed education not as a mission, but a line on his CV.
No wonder that, given the chance, schools have opted out of the old order where for decades government promises of better have led only to worse. Good head teachers want to be able to choose ways of educating their pupils that they know actually work; they want direct control over staffing, and how they spend their budget.
This explains why, since the Academies Act five years ago, more than 2000 head teachers have opted for converter academy status. Michael Gove compared his enemies to the “blob” – a term evoking a shapeless mass of bureaucrats, educationists and union leaders united in a love of non-pedagogic, child-centred learning with minimal checks. This 1960s dream has long been proved a fantasy as delusional as Endymion’s love affair with the moon. The “blob” still exists, but it is increasingly irrelevant to the schools and teachers it thinks it speaks for.
During his time in office, Gove did much to improve both the education and the prospects of children in maintained schools; so, long before, did Kenneth (now Lord) Baker. If Nicky Morgan can do the same, she will join the tiny group of education secretaries whose hard work and practical judgment saw them gain, often against the odds, an impressive final report.