Next Year's Gove: The Policy Exchange conference on party policy 2015

8th June 2014 at 21:46




Typical. You wait all month for an edu-gig, and three come along at once: I was asked to speak at the Policy Exchange Day, Northern Rocks, and an NUT gig, but the think tank got in first. From the social networks, NR looked very interesting, so I'm sure they managed just fine without me. I'm fast becoming the Christopher Biggins of the educational rentagob circuit, and you can carve that on my grave. 


Policy Exchange are often described as a centre-right think tank and, just to confirm that, the day was held in Microsoft's HQ in central London, so I suppose it was a kind of dark-matter version of Northern Rocks. But I was pleased to see was how many teachers were at the PE gig, a fact established by a show of hands during one session. What it means to self-identify as a teacher, I don't know though – we could be looking at a fair few bodies who might have not stepped inside a classroom since Keith Joseph was Minister for Edumagic. You could tell the real teachers there: they were scooping up the free pens into their pockets.


Fresh and fly – It's Michael Gove


Gove opened the show, which was a bit like letting Aerosmith open for Stacey Solomon. He revealed, to my mind, surprisingly little that was new, strumming through a series of his greatest hits: "enemies of promise", "I say to you this" and "I won't accept a school I wouldn't send my child to", "Best teachers in the world, evah". It's interesting watching people who have never hear him speak before, as they realise just how good he is at working an audience. Visually, he conveys bookishness and social conservatism, but when he speaks, he does so with the confidence of a man who has lived with the education brief for seven years, shadow and acting. He's also surprisingly funny and charming. You always hear a few Goveophobes leave an audience with a, "well, he's much nicer than I thought", presumably before they set fire to effigies of him at demonstrations and prove how nice they are themselves.


He hinted at some future policies that I've heard bandied about speculatively by sources near to Whitehall: an emphasis on behaviour at schools (glory be!) and greater pressure on parents to meet their end of the social contract with regard to their child's education, especially on attendance/truancy. It was like the teaser trailer rather than the real thing. Oh, and he warned that more curriculum reform might be on its way, no doubt to the endless joy of the exam boards.


There was even an admission of early mistakes, such as the reckless pace of GCSE reform, but it was all a bit like when you get asked what your biggest weakness at a job interview is, and you say, "Oh I'm a perfectionist". It was like saying, "I'm sorry you're offended". He doesn't regret it at all. He transmits as much self-doubt as a combine harvester. To those who prefer their maître ds a little more contrite and circumspect, he disappoints; I'm sure he couldn't give a damn. 


The Hunt's afoot


After Gove sparkled and American Smoothed across the floor, Tristram Hunt came on. I like Hunt, I rate him, but after M-Diddy, he seemed to wear his brief like a suit rather than inhabit it like a skin. His opening gag was better though: he revealed he was dropped from Cambridge Footlights for not being "regularly funny enough", which is funny in itself.


It was an unashamedly frontal attack on the Gove years, which you have to do in order to make a dent in the great iron ideological citadel that Gove has built. I was struck by the similarities between many of their positions, on academies. on research, on accountability; I imagine that there exists, in the world somewhere, a credit card so diaphanous that one could slip it between the major planks of their policies, but I don't know where. It's a testament to how far the political middle ground has changed, that both parties now offer such similar entrees and, to a large extent, that's Gove's doing. He's reinvented the debate, and by virtue of having the most muscular, coherent views, redrawn the map. Even his apparent blunderbusses like "enemies of promise" help to define what he stands for by defining that to which he is opposed. His critics might be right when they say he polarises rather than co-opts, but I'm sure he could care less. Certainty has many flaws, but hesitancy is not one of them. 


Yanks in a tank


After the Big Beasts had stalked off and the day threatened to wane, on walked Senator Michael Johnston, former education adviser to Barack Obama. He didn't disappoint. You could almost hear a hundred fans beat against a hundred breasts as the audience mouthed to each other, "An American!", like giddy debutantes in Downton Abbey. John David Blake, the flame-haired enfant terrible of Labour Teachers  (it's actually the law that he's described like this every time you mention him) was soon anointing him on Twitter as the saviour of the DfE, the Elijah to the Clinton that is to come, yea.


Johnston talked a lot about love, and he talked a lot about truth, and my Limey reservation about public displays of the former were dispelled by his affirmation for the latter. Unlike most politicians that bang the "I love children" tattoo, he's actually been a teacher and principal. I spoke to him later and although his dialect was transatlantic, the language was purest teacher. And I thought, Christ, how do we get someone like this in education in the UK? Suddenly I'm on the bench with Blake, shaking pom-poms. Plato decried democracy because it led to charismatic but inexpert tyrants. He never anticipated charismatic experts though, and I suspect Colorado has made the most of its suffrage.


John Blake, Flame-Haired Enfant Terrible


I bunked some sessions like a guilty sixth former but turned up for the schools' panel on curriculum, workforce and assessment. Daisy Christodoulou hammered her core knowledge message home. Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment was extraordinarily wise, and more, wise in perfect mimicry of Bill Nighy's voice, which was surreal. Katherine Birbalsingh was polished, earnest and possessed of missionary purpose, and John David Blake, flame-haired enfant terrible, was one of the highlights of the day. Witty and clever, he's a rising star in the educational firmament, and you could do worse than follow him closely. I'd suggest Labour get him into their education team immediately if they want someone sensible to act as Cyrano to Hunt's Christian.


Further bunking with the acolytes of Teach First (all trying to order Skinny Blood Frappucinos from the local Costa) was followed by the last Beano: a school structure session, which was fantastic. Stephen Tall suggested we summon the LEA back from the grave and was self-effacing enough to make me hope that the Liberal Democrats don't actually die out after next election. Like the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, you don't start thinking how much you'll miss them until they start to approach extinction.


There was an argument to be made against academies, but Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti-Academies Alliance, didn't manage to make it. Finland was invoked several times (FFS) as an example of a country that had no, or nearly no, private schools. "Less than one per cent", said Smith. "37 per cent in the Helsinki area," said Tim Oates, deadpan, from the front row, with a voice that would brook no opposition.


James O'Shaughnessey of Floreat Education was fearless and frank, and spoke with a damn-your-eyes confidence; he's also one to watch in the future. Fair play to Policy Exchange, they'd dialled the right numbers when they were putting this together.


Oh, and finally, my bit. Jonathan Simons had given me the following brief: "Say a few words at the end as everyone has their drinks." Which is good, because for a second I thought he was going to be a bit vague. Then he told me just before I went on it was no-mike, spoken-in-the-round to a tired room of drinking, networking people. I was practically clicking my heels in anticipation. Anyway, that bit wasn't filmed, so I can say with the confidence of a man who cannot be contradicted by evidence, that I absolutely killed it, and they were carrying me out at the end on their shoulders. 


That's my story anyway. The sergeant's report comes at it from another angle.


Other highlights:


  • Kris Boulton of the golden locks getting a polite golf clap of very civilised dissent as he stood up and said that levelled assessments were rubbish, which they indeed are. You could count the teachers in the room exactly at that point.
  • The lady next to me who asked a question of Hunt, and cautiously put her iPhone under her right buttock, only to accidentally activate it; Siri butted in like a drunk butler halfway through. "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you said". Comedy gold, if also an indication of the exact moment that Skynet became self-aware. 
  • The wifi password carnage: separate passwords for the hall and the toilets, which simply invites oceans of speculation about how Microsoft HQ operates. Do Apple smuggle refugees out through the cisterns?
  • Gove saying that students would argue over whose "backchat was the most fly". This is a thing that ACTUALLY happened. Who needs crazy pills?