'Education needs solutions, Mr Williamson'

Gavin Williamson has a reputation as a tough operator, who kept a tarantula on his desk. But, says Geoff Barton, those in education need to rise above the rumours, and work with him

Geoff Barton


There’s likely to be a frisson of trepidation this morning, as the world of education digests the news that Gavin Williamson is our new secretary of state.

He comes – I think it’s fair to say – with a reputation for being something of a tough operator. A profile in The Guardian from November 2017 was illuminating. It likened Mr Williamson, in his previous role as Theresa May’s chief whip, to Francis Urquhart, the parliamentary enforcer in the TV drama House of Cards.

He was apparently best known within the claustrophobic world of Westminster, the article said, for keeping a tarantula in a glass box on his desk, seemingly to intimidate MPs who had stepped out of line. He once told delegates at Conservative Party conference: “I don’t very much believe in the stick, but it’s amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot.”

So far, so colourful, then.

Quick read: Gavin Williamson appointed education secretary

Analysis: 5 big problems for Boris Johnson's education ministers

Funding: Boris Johnson makes Number 10 school funding pledge

Solutions, not battle lines

All of this makes it more important than ever that those of us who talk to government on behalf of our profession rise above the fray, not in the interests of being aloof, but in order to make sure that we don’t arrive at the Department for Education with preconceived notions of the new incumbent.

Because we need to work with Mr Williamson, and he needs to work with us. The enormous challenges facing the education sector are too important for any time-wasting impasse. We need solutions, not battle lines.

The challenge that most urgently needs addressing, of course, is the dire funding situation in our schools and colleges.

You won’t be surprised to learn that we lost no time yesterday in reminding the new prime minister of his pledge during the Conservative leadership contest to reverse the education cuts. We haven’t done that to score points, but because we know only too well how deeply damaging the current crisis has been to everything we value: the breadth of the curriculum, the support we are able to give to children and young people, and the enrichment opportunities that should form such an important part of our education system, irrespective of a pupil’s background.

A lot of money

In the leadership contest, Boris Johnson promised to invest an additional £4.6 billion by 2022-23 to reverse the education cuts. We welcome that commitment, but we don’t believe it is enough. We have worked with the NEU, NAHT, and f40 fair funding campaign group, to work out how much is needed to achieve that objective by 2022-23. Our figure is £12.6 billion extra.

It sounds like a lot of money, and, of course, it is a lot of money. But we have to recognise the huge scale of our education system. This analysis covers early years, primary and secondary schools, high needs, and 16-19 funding. It takes into account rising costs, and increases in the number of pupils, as well as the cost of reversing the cuts. It is the most complete picture yet of what education needs.

And it isn’t just us setting out a forensic case for a major strategic investment.

So too did the House of Commons' Education Committee last week with a report that called on the government to commit to a multi-billion-pound cash injection for schools and colleges, and to bring forward a strategic 10-year education funding plan.

Bogged down

Beyond the issue of funding, there are other big challenges to overcome. Our education system has become too bogged down in the minutiae of arcane accountability measures, inspection frameworks, tests and exams. It feels sometimes as though we operate in a parallel universe of mechanisms and monitoring, which are unfathomable to anyone outside the education system, but which rule our lives with a grinding relentlessness. It is narrow, unambitious and joyless. It needs to change.

It is now surely time to develop a vision for the future which is brighter and more optimistic. It’s time to see how we can ease the pressure on our schools, colleges, teachers, leaders, and children, and to talk about what our education system should look like in the 21st century. It’s time to see how we can ensure that every young person, whatever their background and wherever they live, has the opportunity to succeed, and that we equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need in the age of automation.

This is important too for the economic and social future of our country, which brings us inevitably to Brexit.

Primary focus

We are under no illusions that the primary focus of the new cabinet is the deadline for leaving the EU of 31 October. Mr Johnson has effectively staked his premiership on it.

And, whatever your view on that extremely contentious subject, one thing is for certain. Beyond Brexit, however it turns out, we will need to make sure that Britain is globally competitive. And that means having a highly-skilled workforce to ensure our industries thrive. This is, of course, important at any time, but even the most ardent Brexiteer would have to admit that it is more critical than ever if we are heading for the uncharted waters of life outside the EU.

To secure our economy, we must ensure that our education system is properly resourced, and that we think ambitiously, creatively and optimistically about what we can achieve for our young people.

So we look forward to meeting Mr Williamson to discuss how we can work together, constructively and positively, to achieve the best-possible outcomes for our young people, our communities, and for the country.

That, after all, is what the leaders of the nation’s schools and colleges always do.

And, yes, we’re also ready to give a respectful welcome to that tarantula.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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