'Nicky Morgan must give up the soundbites and the emphasis on endless change and instead celebrate our schools and teachers'

The education secretary is due to give her annual conference to secondary school leaders tomorrow. Now is the time for her to set out what she really believes in, writes one high profile head

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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In the scrubby hinterland just round the back of Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, the foliage is stirring. Over the next couple of days, many of the big beasts of the educational jungle will be emerging. They are heading to the exotic – if unexpected – watering hole that is the Hilton Metropole.

Here, one of great events of each school year is taking place: the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). It is a chance for those of us way down the food chain to see, listen to and graze alongside majestic policy-shapers and influencers.

Her Majesty’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw will be there, of course. So will the new national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter. Curriculum guru Mick Waters, British paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, social commentator Simon Cohen, professors Robin Alexander and Barry Hymer: all will take to the stage. There will be thinkers, provocateurs, experts and a bracing mix of school leaders hoping to be refreshed, informed and possibly inspired.

Such events matter. They bring together professionals with a common interest in education, a shared mission of educational leadership and they help us to rise above the swirling flotsam of everyday school life and reappraise what we believe in.

Oh, and there’s a disco.

I will be following the conference on Twitter from here in Darkest Suffolk (that’s not because of last year’s disco experience, honest). And I expect to pay particular attention on Saturday afternoon. That’s when the education secretary arrives to address the conference.

I have no idea who will writing Nicky Morgan’s speech, but I know who I would like it to be: Nicky Morgan.

Of course, I know that politicians have people to do that kind of thing, but I hope that her speech gives us a bit of a sense of who she is and what she stands for.

After all, if we accept the way our political machine operates – that people who’ve never worked in a classroom (such as Ms Morgan and schools minister Nick Gibb) should make decisions about school organisation, qualifications, the curriculum and myriad other issues, then shouldn’t we look to someone who articulates a clear vision of education in this country?

This is the weekend when Ms Morgan could tell us what she believes education is for.

That’s important because the last time she attended the ASCL conference, everyone was pretty much of the opinion that in the run-up to a general election she had been parachuted into cabinet as a kind of reverse stunt-double for Michael Gove.

Whereas his role was to be rather incendiary – lobbing firecrackers at us and gleefully watching us jump – hers appeared to be to lay a collective fire-blanket across a smouldering landscape, to soothe us into pacified submission.

But that was then and this is now. Education today is firmly on Nicky Morgan’s watch.

Nine months after the election, many of us feel that we are still waiting to hear quite what the education secretary believes in. Of course, we know that she agrees with ‘character education’ – the notion that young people should develop resilience, self-confidence and other attributes that will make them good citizens. And, of course, she’s all for high standards and good discipline and strong leaders.

But frankly we all believe in those things, just as we think that success is better than failure, equality better than discrimination, fairness better than prejudice.

It’s time to hear something distinctive. And, at the risk of being presumptuous, here’s what I hope Nicky Morgan might say to school leaders.

First: a matter of style. I hope she’ll eschew that Govean technique of trying to win over her audience with all the name-dropping he so often deployed at the start of speeches. There’s something slightly discomforting when education ministers read aloud a list of great school leaders’ names. It tends to sound too knowingly stitched together either by a special adviser or someone on a DfE work experience placement. It’s really not necessary.

Far better, to acknowledge the reality of school leadership – that much of it is hidden, thankless, relentless. That’s not to say at all that it’s unrewarding. Quite the reverse.

But across the nation’s primary and secondary schools the reality is that quietly brave leaders are helping to provide a glue of social cohesion for a society that too often feels as if it’s splintering.

We really don’t need a list of heroes. Instead we need an acknowledgement of what most parents already know: that great leadership matters, and that it’s the unglamorous stuff, the relationships, the conversations, the tiny acts of compassion that probably matter the most.

I hope then that the education secretary will startle her audience by telling them what we ought to hear much more often – that England’s schools are far better than some people would have us believe. It isn’t for nothing that delegations of foreign visitors come to see our schools and colleges in action.

These are the real policy tourists, enthralled by the autonomy we’ve been enjoying long before this government trumpeted it, envious of our freedom to lead, impressed by our commitment to a balanced rather than narrow curriculum, and our moral purpose. We take this for granted far too often.

I hope Nicky Morgan will talk about teaching as a role underpinned by philosophical principles, rather than an easily accruable checklist of skills to be worked through by any trainee in any school. The craft of the classroom is undeniable, but a role that deals in optimism and learning needs to be presented as more than an Airfix career in which effective teachers can be easily assembled and then wheeled out.

That will entail acknowledging the great work of so many university education departments, instead of caricaturing them as out-of-touch and complacent. Nicky Morgan doesn’t have to take my word for that. Ask Finland.

Finally, I hope the education secretary will distance herself from those laughable rumours that she’s looking to the US and beyond for Sir Michael’s replacement. What message would that send about her faith in England’s existing school leaders? It originated in a misguided press briefing that should have been stifled at the outset.

Instead now is the time to reconceptualise a discredited Ofsted, remoulding it into an organisation that isn’t the enforcer of government policy but instead – much more ethically – an inspection service on a mission to help us to make our schools better.

We therefore need a chief inspector who doesn’t address us all as the hapless new recruits in a September staff meeting, upbraiding us for not spotting the student with his tie not done up. Instead, it’s time for a more joyful sharing of good practice, a celebration of the many schools succeeding against the odds, and fewer – far, far fewer – speeches, admonishments and finger-wagging rebukes to a profession that is already more self-critical than most people realise.

So, yes, let’s have an inspection system predicated on helping us to improve our schools.

The undergrowth shudders as the big beasts assemble. The educational landscape is ripe for change, with an increasing keenness by school leaders actively to shape rather than merely respond to the huge changes we face. This is an extraordinarily positive opportunity for the secretary of state.

Now is her chance to give us a new narrative, to stamp her authority on the Department for Education, and to reject a discredited way of doing things. She could dismiss the craving for soundbites, the emphasis on change over improvement, and begin to make her mark as one of the great education secretaries.

That, however, will entail a change of approach, an evolution.  

After all, as Charles Darwin may have said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent.  It is the one most adaptable to change."

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a 14-18 comprehensive school in Suffolk

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