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Can an education secretary survive without waging war on teachers?

Suggestions that Justine Greening is about to be sacked illustrate a wider problem about the way governments of all colours treat education, writes William Stewart

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Suggestions that Justine Greening is about to be sacked illustrate a wider problem about the way governments of all colours treat education, writes William Stewart

Can it really be true that the only ministers who the public trust to run education are those prepared to go into battle against people actually working in our schools – the teachers?

Do voters really have so much contempt for the overstretched professionals who teach their children every day?

It seems unlikely. But that is the impression one might get from the main political story to break over the New Year break.  

Theresa May is, it has been reported, planning a major Cabinet reshuffle and education secretary, Justine Greening is one of the ministers tipped for the sack.

Her crime, according to “sources”, is to have “sided too strongly” with teaching unions “instead of embracing Tory reforms”.

Stirring up conflict

If correct, it is yet more evidence that those who run our country value short-term, politically advantageous conflict in education over an ability to build consensus for the long haul.

The motivation is not difficult to understand. Education is one of those subjects that everyone cares about – and now that it is touted as a cure-all for virtually every domestic ill, is something that everyone is desperate to improve.

By stirring up conflict with teachers an education secretary – or a prime minister – can quickly generate headlines, and headlines mean it looks like something is being done.

Michael Gove still seems to be acting as the current Conservative Party template for how to run education. The Coalition’s disrupter-in-chief’s free schools’ policy played a key role in kicking Gordon Brown out of Downing Street.

Once in office, Mr Gove continued to attempt to shake-up the consensus by waging war on the “education establishment” – or what he termed as “The Blob”.

In the end, the member for Surrey Heath pushed it too far and created so much ill-feeling among teachers that David Cameron felt compelled to move him away from education.

Education secretary support

But Theresa May’s pre-election determination to force through new grammar schools in the face of almost universal opposition from everyone working in education suggests that the government’s doctrine of conflict with teachers remains as strong as ever.

And the suggestion that Ms Greening may now lose her job for failing to do more to antagonise the profession would appear to confirm it.

The education secretary is widely understood not to have agreed with the grammar schools policy.

Worst still perhaps, she has since managed to win support from many teachers with her fight win schools more money from the Treasury, changes to primary assessment and toning down the free schools programme.

Political capital

It would be unfair to say that it is just Conservative Party governments who place so much value on a ruck with teachers. David Blunkett, for example, made much political capital from his naming and shaming of lower-performing schools, wanted performance pay for teachers and also chose to keep the profession’s bete noire, Chris Woodhead, on at Ofsted.

Estelle Morris, a former teacher herself, was much more conciliatory. But she was gone after fewer than two years, having decided she couldn’t survive in the political climate that cabinet ministers inhabit.

Her successor, Charles Clarke, was able to offer a workload olive branch to some education unions but managed to keep up a healthy argy bargy quotient through an escalating row with the NUT teaching union.

So both main parties have fed off the conflict they have created in education. But working against teachers is likely to undermine the consensus needed to make lasting improvements in schools and the chances of making much-needed policy work on the ground.

Intractable problems

One of the most the system’s intractable problems has been improving results for schools serving disadvantaged areas. Ms Greening’s social mobility plan sought to address the teacher recruitment and retention problems in such areas by ensuring that “the accountability regime gives full credit to what teachers and leaders achieve in challenging schools”.

Common sense, you might think. But the plan was attacked by Ms May’s former adviser Nick Timothy as making “excuses” for “bad schools”.

If such views prevail, education could well be saddled with a short-termist political street fighter instead of someone prepared to work with teachers in getting to grips with the  problems that have been dogging our schools for years.  

William Stewart is Tes news editor and tweets @wstewarttes

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