This old English proverb seems to have evolved over the centuries, and remains as fresh today as a millennia or more ago. English Education is looked after by its own ministry, the Department for Education, since it was recreated as such by David Cameron’s government in 2010 – the conservative appointments since are shown below.
Regular readers of my column will not imagine I am a fan of the DfE nor of its many Secretaries of State over the years. The headline quote on ‘Good Intentions’ is directly pointed at SoS, promising so much and delivering so little and often moving education in the wrong direction. As the timeline above indicates, the main issue with Education’s SoS is that their period of tenure is pretty short, ambitious younger members of parliament seeking to make their name quickly by delivering some easy to achieve outcomes before moving on. Famously, only one SoS has declared they were not good enough for the job, that being Estelle Morris back in 2002. Ms Morris had planned to raise standards of both numeracy and literacy when she moved up into the hot seat in 2001, from her role as school’s minister, and when there had been no progress in raising standards in the meantime, she resigned; In an interview with BBC News Ms Morris said she had “been honest with herself” and thought she had not been as good at the cabinet post as in her old job as schools standards minister.
Since Michael Gove to Nadhim Zahawi, they have done their best to alienate those they profess they wish to lead, namely schools & universities, by setting out their stall at complete odds to those professionals with whom they are seeking to build relationships. Gove put our hackles up right at the outset by referring to the establishment in education as ‘The Blob’, seeking to stand in the way of his incisive introductions, including performance related pay and free schools, re-formalising examinations (reducing/removing controlled assessments/coursework) and above all, objecting to child-centred learning. Not 9 months ago, Zahawi was warned of the urgent need to provide more money to assist with the recovery of children who had been lost to education in the pandemic; whilst he found £6 million for that job, what on earth made him seek to deflect a further £5 million away to assist with the re-establishment of Latin, for goodness sake? Those within education have always sought to evolve practice steadily over time, and certainly over the past 12 years I have seen huge progress in terms of raising awareness within the profession on matters as diverse as safeguarding, children’s well-being and pupil voice. What I have not seen is a willingness of the Secretaries of State is actually understand our ‘landscape’. Back in March 2021, Gavin Williamson called for children to be ‘silent on their return to schools’ so that their learning could be more successful. The most important of all the skills children need to learn in school is ‘oracy’, so keeping them silent simply is not an option. Obviously, when GW was knighted this March by the Prime Minister for his services to education, despite being sacked from the cabinet for failing in that brief. I am with the Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson when she said: “Gavin Williamson let children to go hungry, created two years of complete chaos over exams and failed to get laptops out to kids struggling to learn during #lockdowns. His record is astonishing and disgraceful.”
It’s difficult to report on the conduct of Zahawi over the past 9 months, but I reckon Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England. will have a few things to say about his legacy, now we have almost 2 million children missing education and a growing scandal around the DfE’s imposition of Relatinship and Sex Education and the lack of scrutiny over the actual resources being deployed in school. My school is very unusual in that we have employed school nurses who are particularly well placed to work with our teachers to provide RSE that actually meet regulatory requirements yet delivered by well qualified adults who know the children they are teaching and any issues of background and identity that might need to be handled sympathetically. Speaking to the Parliamentary Education committee last week, de Souza was clear that outsourcing the solution to independent providers was exacerbating the problem in state schools, who do not in the main have access to the resources yet are inspected against this standard.
So as our country has to sit and wait to learn who is to be our next prime minister, so we will have to sit and wait to see if James Cleverly remains in post longer than the 3 days currently served, before we know the direction of DfE travel for the next year or so. Here is the brief he has currently has as SoS, responsible for the work of the Department for Education, including:
- early years
- children’s social care
- teacher recruitment and retention
- the school curriculum
- school improvement
- academies and free schools
- further education
- apprenticeships and skills, l
- higher education
- oversight of the departmental coronavirus (COVID-19) response
By any measure, the Education brief is a big one, and the department’s performance in all 10 areas has been pretty patchy at best. Education sits in a partnership with Health & Care, subject to the whims of another Department (Health) and to an utter ‘horlicks’ of provision, state, private and voluntary whose services cannot be guaranteed even under the flashing ‘blue light’. So here’s the rub, what on earth can we ask of a Secretary of State and how can we measure their performance in role.
- Adopt the demeanour of an Estelle Morris, recognising that the profession has great expertise, listen to the sector and make decisions that keep power distributed across the educational estate. Do not seek to establish a series of commandments that work across the sector, because each slice operates very differently (nursery, primary, secondary, tertiary) and above all don’t let DfE employ any more – its headcount has ballooned since 2010 (+2500), but that is now largely because it is actively managing so many more schools and areas within, and that’s a growing recipe for disaster (+10,000) .
- With care evolve the public examination system so that it brings in to play once more locally assessed coursework as part of the level 2 (GCSE) or level 3 (A level), and value that local dimension too, permitting schools to be proud of those elements it develops that enable citizenship, employment skills and public service.
- Adjust the balance of University Education v Apprenticeship so that the overall population of the country required to go to University for 3/4 years before being qualified is reduced downwards from 50 to 40%, i.e. reduce the Uni population by 100,000 per year group and offer those alternative pathways that permit them to go to work directly, gain skills, add to the workforce and reduce waiting lists across so many areas of public activity. This means moving student debt from Uni to Further Education, not increasing public expenditure per se.
- Reinforce above all the early years – the best way of levelling up is to to ensure the under 5 age range are well looked after, fed, washed, loved and learning by play.
- And finally, please stop blaming the Private sector for what we do well and when we do it. The latest blame we have received is for managing so well on-line learning during the pandemic and maintaining academic standards when the state sector could not. These effects did not happen because we cheated, but because we tackled the challenge and rowed through it, despite #covid-19 and #quarantines. Maintaining the ‘rowing metaphor’, we still had all the hours of practice needed to be put in, the failures and breakdowns to manage and the darkness to face before the dawn. Of course, great victories can follow, as witnessed at Henley Royal Regatta by our Girls Quad winning the Diamond Jubilee cup, but we also witness near misses to, with the boys losing to Windsor Boys in the Fawley semi-final. And Windsor Boys is of course a state school, with a great rowing tradition as we have, and yet one of so many state schools that can also show how ‘good intentions’ can be realised.
My personal good intentions for the Summer include having a break from work and from the pressure of school. The one lovely thing though about education is that its life cycle always includes these ‘breaks’, public exam results are not out for a month so ‘rest’ is assured. And then… well, that’s another story!!!