It’s difficult to resist a good Les Dawson joke, especially at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting – a type of event not usually known for laughs. So you can forgive Steve Mastin, chairman of the Conservative Education Society and history specialist for the Inspiration Trust, for the following: “I went to my doctor and asked for something for persistent wind. He gave me a kite.”
The context was Mastin’s assessment of education pre-2010: kites were all that teachers had been repeatedly given until Michael Gove’s time as education secretary. Instead of kites, Gove gave us headlines, lots of them, spawned by soaring rhetoric flying high on the winds of change that he blasted through the school system.
And he’s still at it in his new job over at Defra, grabbing attention with colourful references to pigs’ ears and the EU.
Post the Gove years, things are slightly quieter now in education – something most people would welcome. After all the radical changes and grandstanding, what was needed was someone who would come in, sweep up all the smashed pieces of the system and diligently glue them back together.
And that is just what education secretary Justine Greening is doing. It’s a boring task – there’s no kudos, no glamour in it, no wham-bam headlines.
In fact, Greening’s conference speech on Sunday (bit.ly/GreeningConf) was less a peroration and more a shopping list – student fees, opportunity areas, degree apprenticeships, maths hubs and English hubs – with the obligatory swipe at Labour to make sure everyone knew where they were.
This is never going to be popular with journalists or die-hard Tories who want to be thrown some red meat at conferences. But it’s hard not to admire Greening’s courage in doing what she thinks is right – the sensible, pragmatic stuff such as tidying up funding – even if it is dull.
Picking up the pieces
What we really need at the moment is boring. And I mean that most sincerely. We need a politician who is prepared to get her hands dirty, not by doing any grand designs or building new structures out of shiny new ideas, but by picking up the pieces. It’s not a cosmetic refurb that’s needed; it’s a reconstruction job.
But in doing so, she does have a duty to convey her plans with clarity and passion. Greening is doing a good day job, but it can feel like it’s the job of the permanent secretary.
Her department should be putting in the hard graft and working out the detail. What she as education secretary should be doing, at least in part, is selling her ideas with a compelling narrative.
This is what Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was getting at in his take on her conference speech, when he said that he would deploy an English-teacher-in-residence at the Department for Education (bit.ly/BartonView).
She needs to work on her narrative to, as Barton says, draw in her audience and get them to see the world she wants to create. Her shadow, Angela Rayner, has a great one: single mother who battled adversity and prevailing socioeconomic gales to reach for the red stars.
Greening’s own backstory no doubt fuels her passion for social mobility: state-educated at her local comp in Rotherham, she didn’t know that private schools existed until she went to university – the first in her family to do so.
Politics is at its most compelling when it has personal narrative. Greening needs to tell more anecdotes like the joke that she knows what it’s like to be an outsider – not because she’s a gay woman, but because she was a Conservative in a strong Labour city.
It’s funny and it humanises what she is doing. Les Dawson, a working-class boy from Manchester and proud Tory voter, would no doubt approve.