I'll let you in on a secret

Geoff Barton

I don't think I'm breaking the Official Secrets Act if I say that the Department for Education hasn't always been the epicentre of ministerial talent.

It is only recently that the people with real power in education - by which I mean teachers - actually knew which politician had been shunted into a job once viewed as the festering cul-de-sac of ambition.

When I started teaching, it was the anguished Sir Keith Joseph who was secretary of state. He was something other-worldly, with a manic eye. Given a guided tour of some television studios in the late 1970s, he is alleged to have said: "It's very interesting, but do you think it will catch on?"

Many others have risen without trace and then shuffled off to other things. So all credit to education secretary Michael Gove for getting himself and his department noticed, and for his undoubted sense of reforming zeal. None can doubt his mission to see state education improved and his apparent iron will in resisting that fast-track policy to Conservative Party beatification - a grammar school in every town.

But the ever-moving juggernaut of educational policies gets tiresome. I happen to agree with Winston Churchill: "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." And while we've seen giddying levels of busyness at the department since May 2010, the real test of any education secretary's tenure must be whether the quality of teaching has improved on his or her watch.

I'm not sure we could find much evidence today to say whether teaching now is better than teaching before. Initiatives sweep past us faster than a Teasmade on The Generation Game conveyor belt. But have they raised standards?

With what The Daily Telegraph calls an "exam crackdown to restore the gold standard" and Ofqual's "comparable outcomes", I'm not sure how we would ever know. If results from one year to the next are now pinned, how will we know whether teachers are doing a better job and whether all that ring-fenced spending over the past 20 years has had an impact?

To which Gove could reply: Ofsted will tell us.

I pause at this point for hollow laughter to sweep the nation's staffrooms. Because (again, not a state secret) few of us have much faith that all Ofsted inspectors can tell us much about real teaching.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted's chief, quite sensibly announced that on his watch there is to be no "house style" for lessons. Inspectors, he said, simply want to see good teaching. But do they know what it looks like?

So as a new school year begins, here's a suggestion to both Michaels. Teachers and teaching matter a lot. The job isn't as simple as some suggest, and the majority of teachers want to keep improving.

The department might support that mission with fewer gimmicky distractions and a tad less hubris.

Ofsted might help by stating as its core purpose a wish to help schools do better rather than, as it too often feels at the moment, a smirking, glowering "we know better than you do" sense of relish if we trip up.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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