'I hope the new education secretary will lob the White Paper into the nearest bin'

It’s good to see a product of the comprehensive-school system gain access to the levers of power. Justine Greening has a first-rate opportunity to do something radical as education secretary, says this leading headteacher

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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It looks like a case of finding NiMo wanting.

Remember the time when we watched House of Cards for political intrigue and Spitting Image for political entertainment? Now, just as reality television promised, the actual world of Westminster provides more blood-spattered thrills than most TV dramas. And for belly laughs, there’s always Boris.

So, like some dirty game of Cluedo, a Whitehall reshuffle is playing out as I type. And, around it, there’s a distinct whiff of scores being settled.

That long-standing spat between Theresa May and Michael Gove has resulted in a brutal sacking. My guess is that, with regard to that decision, the nation’s staffrooms will be cheering on Team May.

But what about the dismissal of Nicky Morgan?

Shuffling in the shadows

Although I’ve read a few half-hearted laments at her demise, it’s hard to feel much emotion at Ms Morgan’s removal from the helm of education. In truth, she always seemed to be shuffling about in the shadows of her more attention-seeking predecessor. Her policies felt something of a limp continuation of the Govean mission.

Sure, she made some speeches about character education, but they rarely rose above the level of platitudes. Who, after all, would argue with the idea that schools should help young people to become more resilient and independent-minded?

After all, it’s by what we do rather than what we say that we will be judged, and in terms of identifying what Nicky Morgan actually did, it’s like playing Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey after too much Pimm’s at the staff leaving do.

All of which means we’ll never know whether the slowly stagnating White Paper, with its humiliating climbdown on forcing schools into the academy cul-d-sac, would actually have left education in better shape.

The omens weren’t good. There was little in the White Paper that would have helped teachers to teach better or students to learn more.

Ideological baggage

I hope, therefore, that the new education secretary will lob that document into the nearest bin, along with some of the nauseating ideology of the Department. For example, there’s the view that all university-based teacher training is run by complacent nutters, and the view that accountants know more about how to teach reading than people in our primary schools.

So I hope she’ll stuff all such ideological baggage into the back of one of those Downing Street removal vans and wave away an era of the profession being patronised.

Instead, I would urge Ms Greening to take her tone from Theresa May, and see her mission as one of social justice. More young people from disadvantaged backgrounds need the benefit of the great teaching that the advantaged already have in their catchment areas or, if they don’t, that they buy.

In this, Justine Greening’s own background bodes well. It’s good to see a product of the comprehensive-school system gain access to the levers of power. We need more of them. From my 30 years of teaching comprehensive schoolchildren in Leeds, York and Suffolk, these young people often show precisely the kind of grit, creativity, hunger and drive that doesn’t get enough kudos. They make great leaders.

It’s refreshing too to see that her degree is from a really good university – Southampton – as a reminder to those of us from the provinces that all of Britain’s universities, and not just those that attract the predictable plaudits, develop people for top leadership roles and public service.

Teach skilfully and joyfully

All of this creates a first-rate opportunity for Justine Greening to do something radical as education secretary. Against a backdrop of economic turbulence, uncertainty and a society that appears to be fracturing because of too many toxic undercurrents, she should be judged by a single issue. Can she help the profession to recruit more top-quality teachers, give them the freedom to teach skilfully and joyfully, and ensure the conditions whereby they stay in what ought to be the most optimistic of professions?

If she can do that, every child from every background will benefit. So will our economy and our sense of national wellbeing.

That opening White Paper of the Gove era was called The Importance of Teaching. It unleashed a tidal wave of structural reforms, policy tinkering and curriculum and qualification redesigns. We have lived through an era of hugely distracting busyness.

But few would argue that teaching has improved as a result.

Yet this is the benchmark against which the new education secretary should finally be judged. She inherits many talented people in this profession. She needs to listen to them, heed them and not to be seduced by the myth that decisions made in Whitehall offices can improve something so important as the interaction between teacher and child.

The secretary of state’s job is to help create the conditions for great education. So much is in place to make it possible. I welcome Justine Greening with an enormous sense of optimism and a sense that our profession is keen to show her – rather than being told by her – just how great education in our country can be.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a 14-18 comprehensive school in Suffolk. He tweets as @realgeoffbarton

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