We don’t agree with Nick Gibb on much – but on this he is right

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

So, farewell then Nick Gibb, who has stepped down as schools minister – a post he has held for most of the past 13 years. I’m not going to run the rule over his sizeable impact on education – you’ll have your own views – other than to say we share the same passion for achieving the best possible outcomes for children and young people. The point of variance, as they say, is just that we have frequently disagreed over how to do that.

I mention his departure here because I was struck by a section in his letter to Jacky Pendleton, the chair of the Conservative association in the Bognor Regis and Littlehampton constituency he proudly represents.

In that letter, he lists some of the long-term issues Britain faces, and goes on to say:

I remain an optimist and I believe that the answers to these challenges will be found by thinkers and politicians of the centre-right, but I worry that growing cynicism and hostility to those who stand for election and hold office is damaging our ability to come together to solve problems.

Leaving aside the “centre-right” bit, he is certainly correct about the growing cynicism and hostility to those who stand for election, and just how damaging this is. It makes a career in politics unappealing to anyone who does not possess the hide of a rhino, and it is an incentive for those in public life to seek out what they believe to be popular among their supporters rather than what may be good for the public as a whole.

For those of us in education this is dispiriting because teaching young people about the importance of a participatory democracy, and encouraging our students to aspire to make the world a better place, is an important part of what we do.

The hostility that Nick Gibb identifies is fanned by the cesspit of social media and elements of the mainstream media which are permanently in attack mode. However, it is also fuelled by the actions of some of those in public life themselves. Nick Gibb is courteous and respectful, able to robustly debate in a civilised manner, and many other politicians are of the same ilk. But as we have seen in recent times – the foul-mouthed WhatsApp exchanges revealed in the Covid inquiry, and the divisive rhetoric of Suella Braverman – the behaviour of some in public life falls short of what most of us would deem to be right and proper.

It is a terrible example to young people. At a time when schools are struggling to cope with a rise in challenging behaviour, we need – more than ever – all adults to be good role models.

Indeed, in respect of those in public life, this is touched on in the so-called Nolan principles, a code of conduct which started out under a committee established by then Prime Minister John Major in the 1990s in response to the political scandals of the time. 

One of these principles says that “holders of public office should … treat others with respect” and that they should “challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.”

As readers of this column will know, the Nolan principles apply not only to those who are elected or appointed to public office, but to everyone who works in public services, including in education. If we breached those principles in our schools and colleges – for example, by insulting colleagues in WhatsApp messages – we would probably face disciplinary action. And yet, at the heart of government, during the greatest national crisis since the Second World War, some individuals clearly behaved with a startling lack of respect, not to mention breaking the very lockdown laws which they had set. 

Like Nick Gibb, I too am an optimist. I believe that civilised, respectful policymaking will prevail because ultimately the public want solutions rather than sound and fury. But, my goodness, the last few years have not been great, and it feels like we need urgently need a reset in which good manners are prized and promoted, not as some sort of old-fashioned concept, but as an important part of a modern, functioning, healthy democracy.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 

Image: UK Parliament Licence Creative Commons
Posted: 17/11/2023 08:19:18