The Brexit deadlock continues, in-party squabbling dominates the headlines, and a Conservative leadership contest is (according to some) imminent.
Much to the dismay of the education community, Michael Gove is being touted as a potential candidate for the top job. And it got me thinking: what would it mean, to have a former education secretary as prime minister? What might their record of their time in education say about their leadership style and the way in which the country might be governed?
Let’s have a look.
Let’s start with the man of the moment himself.
He’s already shown himself to be an enthusiastic public speaker, clearly relishing his role in supporting the prime minister against a vote of no confidence in her leadership. Although he’s keen to protest his loyalty, we should remember that it wasn’t so long ago that he was preparing to break away from Boris Johnson in a bid to win the top job for himself.
But, divided loyalties apart, what does his time with the Department for Education indicate about his ability to reunite the country while negotiating a better deal with the European Union, thus providing a palatable Brexit? His reign in education oversaw highly contentious changes to A levels and GCSEs. By enforcing academisation, he showed considerable conviction – but not necessarily diplomacy or wisdom. Nor have the fruits of his “reforms” been universally beneficial.
A prime minister, particularly with her or his own party, must be able to listen to advice and criticism. Ms May’s failure to do so seems to be one of the reasons MPs are deserting her and the party.
A minister echoing too closely the views of thinktanks – one who dismisses all views contrary to his own as coming from “The Blob” – would be a liability when negotiating with European diplomats. How hard would Brexit be under Mr Gove?
His successor, Nicky Morgan, provoked considerable surprise as she abandoned the punitive rhetoric of her predecessor. Her acknowledgement of teachers’ crippling working conditions was quickly followed by the Workload Challenge, the workload review groups at the Department for Education and recommendations accepted by Ofsted and the government. It proved to be a sea-change that allowed teachers to discuss, openly and with less shame, the pressures that for some had become unendurable. Her greater empathy might stand her in good stead with EU leaders. But would she clinch the deal? Her character education initiative failed to get off the ground, and the workload problem remains intractable.
When the result of the Brexit vote was announced in 2016, television commentators were quick to suggest that the vote had gone against David Cameron and the EU because people on the lowest incomes had not shared the benefits of EU trading relationships.
Tes reported yesterday that research by data analytics company SchoolDash demonstrates a link between low-attainment gaps in education and pro-Brexit areas.
Too often the view from Westminster extends no further than the boundaries of the capital city. Teachers living outside the capital, especially those on the coastal fringes, will be wondering whether a newly-elected prime minister will be able to lift his/her eyes from the issues besetting the capital. Funding formulas have historically failed to benefit poorer communities outside London: the figures for funding per pupil have all too obviously favoured London pupils over those in my own area, for example.
This where Justine Greening could come into her own.
She arrived at the DfE with experience as transport secretary and in international development. She introduced the social mobility “opportunity areas” and supported an attempt to bring back into contention areas that had lost out for too long.
Her stance on Brexit – she is a firm remainer – would mean she may not be a favoured candidate. But, given the need to overcome current divisions in Parliament and the impasse in EU negotiations, her more sympathetic ear might just help to find a breakthrough. Like Nicky Morgan, she involved herself in the workload initiatives, showing empathy and staying power, meeting the three review groups and other representatives and researchers.
Her recent contributions to the EU debate, once all the loud voices have left the chamber, show a more measured approach, a refreshing change from recent stridency in the House and the EU.
Damian Hinds has brought to the DfE an even more emollient style, which has found favour with heads, especially at conference time. He has limited the powers of schools commissioners and expressed his trust in school leaders. He’s gone on record as a determined supporter of workload reduction. His attempts to limit the excessive salaries of some MAT leaders have been forcibly and clearly argued. If the education secretary – with responsibility for the whole education system, with a span of control that embraces a whole nation’s schools – is satisfied with his parliamentary salary, then who should be paid more (or even the same) money?
Faced with a recruitment and retention challenge (to say the least), he has seen in a new two-year induction for newly qualified teachers, but has still to demonstrate significant cuts to the workload and stress which beleaguer the profession.
Ofsted’s rhetoric may now be less about incompetent teachers and more about curriculum, but the problem remains that changes to the accountability framework incorporate increased – not reduced – workload.
The academic/ skills divide is causing a significant headache – one that’s far more obvious in this country than in prosperous EU countries like Holland and Germany. Hinds’ preference for T levels and probable abandonment of BTECs have not found favour with all. Setting up more good quality apprenticeships is key. But, according to Tes, they’re in danger of being colonised by those who already have qualifications and jobs, at the expense of the youngest and least well-placed in society.
Damian Hinds might be charmingly diplomatic, and capable of rebuilding some bridges, but would he be able to actually implement changes to satisfy those in the poorest areas, those who voted for Brexit out of sheer despair?
Life after Brexit?
Sadly the decision about who should lead the Conservative Party and the country doesn’t lie with teachers, their students, parents and stakeholders. But whoever it may be – former education secretary or not – they would do well to look to schools for a lesson on setting up the next generation of young people to deal with the repercussions of Brexit.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a secondary school in the south of England