‘All these U-turns and contradictions are enough to short-circuit the DfE’s army of automatons’

The robotic nature of the Department for Education’s responses suggests that there’s a crisis in the government, writes a leading head

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I’m worried about Robert. Really, I am.

I’m referring to the robot of indeterminate gender who acts as the Department of Education’s spokesman on all matters. When I first divined his/her existence, I was reminded of two great writers of mid-late 20th-Century science fiction.

Arthur C Clarke posited in 2001: A Space Odyssey a computer that saw the humans as the weak link in its programmed mission and sought to eliminate them. By contrast, Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics prohibited a robot, however powerful its AI, from ever harming a human being. A command given to a robot that required it to do so would identify a contradiction within it, resulting in paralysis or shut-down.

Recently we’ve been seeing Robert the DfE robot similarly perplexed when required to comment on ministerial climb-downs and U-turns. Sats and floor-targets have really taxed it. When parents led a boycott of the exams, Robert was unbending:

"Tests are in pupils’ own interests and help teachers and parents identify where additional support is needed so we can make sure all children leave primary school having mastered the basics of literacy and numeracy."

Notwithstanding the fact that 89 per cent of teachers abhor Sats, in reply to criticism by the president of the Independent Schools Association, Robert commented:

"We value teachers’ feedback on tests and work with them in the development process, through expert review and trialling of potential questions."

That was hardly consistent with the response to a survey that:

"56 per cent of pupils themselves do not mind the tests, which help teachers understand how pupils are doing and identify where additional support is needed."

There’s genuine confusion about the suggestion that the number of primary schools falling below floor standards could rise by a fifth this year: yet education secretary Nicky Morgan had promised the NAHT annual conference that no more than one per cent more schools would fail, a number in single figures.

Poor Robert was asked to clear up the misunderstanding:

          "It is misleading to speculate on numbers at this stage, but we can say the proportion will not rise by more than one percentage point."

TES observed that “a rise to 6 per cent would mean an extra 149 schools judged as failures”.

'It doesn't compute'

On the U-turn that wasn’t a U-turn with regard to forced academisation, Robert was called in to back up a boss who was in danger of becoming robotic herself. Ms Morgan was emphatic: “I am today reaffirming our determination to see all schools to become academies. However, having listened to the feedback from Parliamentary colleagues and the education sector, we will now change the path to reaching that goal.” 

They’ll do it anyway: they just don’t need to legislate to do it. Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT teaching union, was in no doubt: it was “quite clear that the government intends to press ahead with their academy programme”.

Robert was conciliatory at first, allegedly still responding to a question about academisation:

"We want to work constructively with the sector, supporting the school-led system to better develop and train the next generation of strong leaders."

When someone in Sanctuary Buildings turned up the hard-line knob, Robert’s message got tougher:

 "We have been clear that our ambition remains to see all schools to become academies and we welcome this analysis on how that could be achieved. We will be consulting with the public and the wider education sector on the threshold of underperforming and unviable local authorities in due course."

Robert then began to emit sparks and regurgitate nuts and bolts before being whisked back indoors for repair.

All this contradiction is just too much for the poor machine. Statements about how the department has sacked mental health champion Natasha Devon MBE – err...while still keeping her on board as a full member of the DfE’s mental health steering group, which will be making recommendations this summer – has really over-heated Robert’s circuit-boards. Moreover, it’s clear that someone will have to programme a whole new app to produce announcements and excuses following such strings of cock-ups as leaked Sats papers.

But hey! That’s robotics for you! Coming next: Robert learns to drive.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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