Why this dereliction of duty stretches beyond the DfE

It's all very well calling for Gavin Williamson's head – but he's the product of a muddled government, says Geoff Barton
8th January 2021, 3:43pm
Geoff Barton


Why this dereliction of duty stretches beyond the DfE

Coronavirus & Schools: This Dereliction Of Duty Goes Beyond Gavin Williamson, Writes Geoff Barton

Way back in 2002, in my first week of headship, giving my first assembly to 350 Year 11 students, with their tutors looking on from the side of the hall, something unexpected happened. 

The students started booing me.

It was because I was announcing a tightening of the school's expectations: shirts tucked in, shoes not trainers, being on time to lessons. That kind of thing. The stuff all new leaders do to signal "under new management".

And those young people, heading into their final few weeks of school (I started the job at Easter), didn't like it. So they booed. And their tutors saw.

It was a reminder - one, frankly, that I didn't need - that leadership isn't always accompanied by popularity.

Which brings us to the theme of today's column: Gavin Williamson.

Coronavirus: Booing the education secretary

You don't have to read many newspapers, or listen to many political pundits, to be told that the storm clouds are gathering around England's education secretary. Opprobrium is being heaped upon his head by his critics on a daily basis, and his standing among the teaching profession appears to be at rock bottom.

Everyone, it seems, is lining up to boo.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic would have tested the mettle of any education secretary, particularly one relatively new to the job, as was the case with Mr Williamson when the crisis erupted.

Increasingly, I get asked in interviews whether I have confidence in Mr Williamson, and it's a question I tend to side-step. Because our national passion for holding up a single scalp can easily distract us from more important issues beneath the surface. 

By which I mean that, in heaping the blame solely on Mr Williamson, we risk letting off the hook a government that shares a great deal of corporate responsibility for the shambles that it has made of education policy during this crisis.

DfE gobbledygook

Take the latest piece of nonsense, for example. After the prime minister's sudden U-turn on Monday night, and the move to partial opening (primary schools were now deemed "vectors of transmission"), it quickly became clear that some primary schools were seeing very high levels of attendance from the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

One primary in Yorkshire expected 40 pupils on Tuesday. In fact, 200 arrived.

This raises concerns not only about the practicalities of delivering teaching to all those children while also delivering remote education to the children at home, but also about the public health implications of having so many pupils in school with all the movement through the community it entails.

However, the Department for Education's guidance for schools, published yesterday, tells us that there is no limit to the number of these pupils who may attend. "This is because we are reducing overall social contact across areas and the country rather than individually by each institution," it explains, unhelpfully.

How can it make sense to take the drastic action of moving schools to remote education, while glibly declaring that there is no limit on the numbers who may attend for face-to-face teaching? And if the numbers are large in educational institutions, surely this cumulatively affects social contact across areas and the country.

While this bit of gobbledygook comes from his department, one suspects that this isn't the brainchild of Mr Williamson, but the product of a wider sense of confusion in government over how to balance various priorities in the latest lockdown.

Hopelessly muddled thinking

There are many other examples of hopelessly muddled thinking over the past nine months, in which something has gone wrong with the interface between the Department for Education, Downing Street and various other arms of government.

Again, that isn't all the fault of Mr Williamson, but a wider failing within the command-and-control structures of a government that has often appeared out of its depth, unable to reach beyond its tribal instincts, and therefore incapable of working in a spirit of collaboration at a time when the nation craves something more than party political posturing. 

Thus, in a populist act of throwing red meat to backbenchers, the secretary of state's announcement on Wednesday about the cancellation of the summer's exams contained another inevitable theme. 

He said: "We have set out clear, legally binding requirements for schools to provide high-quality remote education. This is mandatory for all state-funded schools and will be enforced by Ofsted. We expect schools to provide between three and five teaching hours a day, depending on a child's age.

"If parents feel their child's school is not providing suitable remote education, they should first raise their concerns with the teacher or headteacher and failing that, report the matter to Ofsted."

Notice that phrase "enforced by Ofsted". 

What on earth have we come to that, at a time of national crisis, the trust between parents and schools, government and school leaders, is reduced to a squalid threat of "enforcement"?

And it is surely rhetorical nonsense. Because if a parent complains, what happens then? Are Ofsted inspectors really the gurus in remote learning? What framework exactly will this evidence-based organisation use to judge a school's remote learning provision? How will it judge quality over quantity of daily hours? And what exactly are Ofsted's sanctions? Is the government's shabby predilection for legal action about to be resurrected?

If anything signalled how woefully out-of-step the government is with the national mood, it's this playing-to-the-gallery kind of stuff.

In short, this is a top-down government. It thinks it knows better than teachers and leaders about what constitutes high-quality education. It seems to believe that inspectors know more about remote learning than the people actually trying to make it happen, day in, day out, in our schools and colleges. 

And, apparently, it thinks the public will be taken in by lazy diversionary tactics designed to hide its own failures in so many areas - from laptop provision, to free school meals, to getting data to poor families, to having a worked-up plan B for the summer's examinations. Add your own issues to this list. All of which feels like a dereliction of duty.

Calling for the head of Gavin Williamson might make some people briefly feel better. But, in truth, what we really need is a government that does business in a different way - recognising that we, the nation's public servants, working in education, may actually be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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