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A new era dawns …

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Blog - A new era dawns …

Wednesday 12 May 2010

We still, this Wednesday morning, don’t know the name of the new education secretary, or even if he (and it will probably be a he) will be a Conservative or Lib Dem.  I have heard both David Laws and Michael Gove speaking about their vision for education – I should not say which one I prefer, so suffice it to say that both are clearly absolutely on top of their briefs, and have a close understanding of the issues.  Michael Gove, the Tory candidate, is probably more ideologically motivated, and Laws is probably more ‘commonsensical’ in his approach.

So what do I want the new government to do in education?  Let me try and list my top five priorities for the new secretary of state:

  1. Pass fewer education laws, promulgate less regulation and substantially reduce the torrent of emails and instructions to schools from central government.  There have been so many in recent years that many heads have just stopped reading them all.
  2. Give more emphasis to schools developing their own distinctive approach and having greater control over their own affairs, and in particular reduce the burden of bureaucracy, form-filling and inspection to give them time and scope to do this.  Also, stop trying to solve every social problem by adding a new subject to the curriculum – try to solve these problems by looking deeper into the kind of society we are creating and the kind of values our leaders communicate – this is where the root of social problems lies. 
  3. Rebalance the national rhetoric on the churches and church schools – it has been far too negative in recent years, and church schools have been completely unfairly demonised for being socially divisive.  Recognise the contribution faith communities make, and, Mr Cameron, really try to put into practice your ideas about building a society of communities with real local engagement.  Church schools are not the root of society’s ills, as I have said many times before – value-free materialism and consumerism is where our society has gone wrong, under both colours of government (unfettered Thatcherism and the all embracing state) for the past two decades. 
  4.  Of course schools have to be accountable, but the best way of doing that is through low-impact, smart and light touch methods, designed to support them in getting better.  Naming and shaming schools so that they lose all credibility in their locality does no good at all, and inevitably creates more division in communities.  And very high-stakes examinations and inspection regimes just distort what young people get offered in schools and sometimes force schools to make decisions which are not in children’s best interests, just because the figures we are judged by demand it.  That needs to change.
  5. Keep up the investment in schools, and don’t slash spending in schools themselves.  Of course there is some waste in education, but most of it is not in schools, it is in the various superstructures and authorities which exist to ‘support’ and regulate schools.  If there have to be cuts, make them there, not in school budgets.

Yesterday was the end of the New Labour era.  I clearly remember Friday 2nd May 1997 when I came into school on the first day of that administration.  To many of us it seemed like a new dawn after nearly two decades of rule by what to many in the younger generation (which I belonged to then!) seemed like the interminable rule of dull middle aged men in grey suits.  New Labour looked fresh and youthful. 

My top five priorities above show where I think they have gone wrong in education. But they have done some really good things too, including finally getting fair pay for teachers and investing seriously in state schools, both in terms of resources and buildings.  They have earnestly tried to tackle some of the entrenched division and under-privilege educationally in our society, and there has been at least some success in many areas.  However, I do feel personally betrayed that they did not tackle the iniquity of selection in areas such as Kent in the 11+ – in some ways, I feel more reassured by Michael Gove’s public commitment to inclusive secondary schooling.  I hope time does not make that optimism look naive.

There is still much to do in education, and what we have now is far from perfect, although it has moved on very considerably from the position 13 years ago.  We who work in schools know how important the job we do is – yes, for the future of the country, but also for the benefit of each young person and their and our communities.  In his leaving speech last night Mr Brown thought he had the best job in the world in terms of ‘potential for good’ – we who lead and work in schools think we run a close second!  Good wishes to the new government and in particular the new education ministers.