No advisers, no photo-ops: why all education secretaries should start with a week working in a school

The advantages are many: it would be a real dose of reality, close the gap between the governors and the governed and demonstrate how much work teachers really do. Besides, most schools could really do with the help right now

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When I’m in schools working with teachers, we invariably get onto the topic of political involvement in education. There is always a healthy dose of cynicism, as you would expect. Let’s face it, it’s unlikely the politicians directing education policy from Westminster are ever going to be universally loved by the profession.

However, one frustration comes up time and time again – that the education secretary has no direct experience of teaching or schools other than having attended one. With Estelle Morris being the notable exception, virtually all the post holders in recent times have come from other professional backgrounds. In the last few decades, we’ve had an accountant, a solicitor, a journalist and a number of career politicians.

Many of these were well-intentioned, dedicated and intelligent – with a few notable exceptions. Some were highly adept at running a government department, but the fact remains none had any first-hand experience of working in the sector they were effectively in charge of.

This is the inevitable consequence of our democratic parliamentary system. We elect MPs to represent our constituency, not on the basis of their ability to run a specific department. For better or worse, this is the system we have and – for the foreseeable future – it is likely those charged with running the Department for Education will never have had the experience of standing in front of a class of Year 9 students on a wet Tuesday afternoon trying to explain the concept of simultaneous equations.

While it is true that you don’t have to have worked at the coalface to be an effective leader, an understanding of what it’s like to work in the profession you are presiding over can  only make you a better policymaker.

Back to school for education secretaries

So here’s an idea…

What if every new secretary of state were to spend a week working in a school at the start of their term in office? Just one week.

I’m not talking about the simple two-hour visit, a bit of glad-handing and a quick photo-op that we have become used to seeing. I mean really spending a week in school. Working alongside teachers as they plan and mark, doing a break duty, going to staff meetings, taking an assembly, joining a parents evening, attending a governor meeting, perhaps even taking a lesson. Basically, properly rolling up those immaculately pressed sleeves and having a go.

There would be no drivers taking them to and from work – and no political advisors in tow to help out.

Also, no cherry-picking of schools. It should be as close to representative as is possible to get in terms of intake, results, staffing and Ofsted judgement. This is the only way to find out what things are really like both from a child and teacher perspective. Ideally, this would involve a week in a nursery, one in a primary and one in a secondary, but I’d settle for one of those to start with.

Plenty of CEOs spend time going "undercover" or back to the shop floor to understand the organisations they lead, so why not the secretary of state? Granted, the "undercover" bit could be a bit tricky...

A bit more empathy

This sort of experience should not lead politicians to being any less ambitious for our children. Nor would it mean they don’t ever have to take tough decisions that the profession doesn’t approve of – that’s part of the job. Hopefully what it would mean, though, is that when those discussions are taking place back in Westminster, the person making the call has a bit more empathy with those being tasked with implementing it. It would also show a level of humility that would go down very well with the profession.

Our latest education secretary has only recently arrived in the post (Damian Hinds, pictured on a school visit) and I genuinely wish him all the luck in the world in doing what is one of the most important jobs in government. I have a feeling that if he would like to come and spend some real time in school, there would be no shortage of offers. After all, as I’m sure he’s already picked up on, we are a little short of people stepping forward right now.

James Bowen is director of the NAHT Edge middle leaders’ union. He tweets @JamesJkbowen

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