By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
As Lenin put it, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”. Well, over the past few days, it seems as if decades of change have taken place every other hour.
So, at the time of writing (Friday morning), James Cleverly is Education Secretary (the third this week), while the only other ministers in the Department for Education are Will Quince (who has returned a day after resigining) and Baroness Barran. Boris Johnson intends to remain in charge of a caretaker government until a new Prime Minister is appointed and presumably shuffles the ministerial deck of cards once more.
If that results in another Education Secretary, it will be the eighth since Michael Gove’s tenure ended in 2014.
This is a particularly useless record, which says a lot about the true governmental attitude to education. The leadership of an important public service has been reduced to a merry-go-round of political appointments. It is the product of years of instability which has reached the lowest point imaginable under Boris Johnson.
But the fact that it can happen at all illustrates a fundamental tension between the short-termism of politics and the need for a long-term vision for education.
During those past eight years we’ve seen various administrations lurching aimlessly in one direction then another.
We’ve had a plan to force all schools to become academies, and another for a new wave of grammar schools, both of which were abandoned; ministers denying for years that there was a funding crisis in education until the government accepted there was one and belatedly put some extra (and insufficient) money into the sector; a technical education revolution which put at risk existing technical qualifications; Gavin Williamson’s chaotic handling of education during the coronavirus pandemic; and latterly Nadhim Zahawi’s focus on raising literacy and numeracy attainment targets without any additional resources.
For good measure we have another plan to fully academise the system (with no idea of how this is going to happen) and a hopelessly confused tutoring scheme (another ‘revolution).
None of this is under-pinned by any sense of a coherent long-term vision, of a clear direction with clear objectives. The nearest we have got to that is the championing of a traditional academic, knowledge-based curriculum – during Nick Gibb’s long tenure as an education minister – which unfortunately marginalises other subjects, doesn’t work well for all children, and seems in contradiction to the aforementioned technical education revolution.
A long-term vision would look completely different. It might, for example, set out a funding strategy over the next 10 years including special educational needs provision, establish a curriculum body balancing stability with periodic reviews of economic and societal needs, modernise and streamline qualifications so they work better for more learners, introduce a joined-up set of measures to make teaching more attractive, and improve the systems for capital funding and the maintenance of the school and college estate.
Such a vision would deal with the issues which matter most – rather than the distraction of the latest policy gimmick – and provide clarity to the sector about the goals we collectively want to achieve. It would help to take an education system that is good to being great; one which works well for all our children and young people.
But the short-termism of the political cycle operates in the opposite direction. Governments plan for five-year terms and are often derailed by events in the interim. Thus, the procession of Education Secretaries over the past eight years, and the farce of three in one week.
We will hopefully never again see an administration quite as shambolic as that of Boris Johnson. But the underlying problem remains. What we need is a grown-up government that is willing to relinquish some of the levers of power and build a long-term vision for education, working with industry and the education profession, that is less likely to be blown off course by events, changes of leader and changes of government.
Fat chance, I hear you say.
But at the end of a week when the current political dynamic has only too clearly shown its inherent weaknesses, we have to hope and argue for something better. The next Prime Minister should, at the very least, be able to restore a sense of competent government. But that really is setting the bar very low, and at its best returns us to the ‘normal’ churn of ministers, pet projects and gimmicky policies.
Doing business differently would be a challenge for any leader and government. It would take courage and clarity. But it could be transformative – delivering a clear, stable and ambitious vision for education that benefits children, young people and their communities.
Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.