'Our future is debated by people who've never taught'

Gavin Williamson should know establishing the right relationship at the start of a new term is vital, says David James

Man reading on train tracks

Ever since Michael Gove packed away his framed pictures of those great libertarian educationists Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Michael X, it seems that the best an incumbent of that corner office in Great Smith Street can do is to coin clichéd bromides about teaching, recycle some money and repackage it as a pay rise, and appoint endless non-teachers to advisory boards who go on to tell teachers what they should be doing better.

This, at least, is the impression too frequently created and perpetuated by those who benefit from that narrative. But it is easy to forget that secretaries of state can make a difference when a clear need is recognised and an outcome agreed. 

Perhaps the unintended consequence of some members of the profession’s bilious relationship with the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is that we have condemned ourselves to endless anodyne (and transient) ministers whose main aim for their working day is to hope that the PermSec doesn’t notice that they are cyberloafing their way through the morning, before lunch at the Cinnamon Club, finished off by an intense afternoon of tweeting. 

Doggy bag

Those long-gone days of Govean high drama seem like indulgent banquets of roasted swans and plover, followed by Escoffier-inspired desserts, compared with these limp vegan salad days of diet and drift. Irrespective of what teachers thought of Mr Gove, at least we knew that schools were the mains on the government’s menu.

Now we are the policy equivalent of a doggy bag: the leftover scraps that will get defrosted and microwaved sometime in the future, perhaps during the inevitable Brexit hangover.

The opposite of love isn’t hate. It isn’t even indifference. It’s forgetting that something is there until you hear the “ping ping” of it emerging, overheated, reminding you of its charred, unwanted existence. 

We are in a lacuna, a deep freeze, with neither teaching unions nor the government really knowing what to do with each other or with schools and the people who work in them.

Like a class at the end of term

The profession is like a class at the end of term: everyone has run out of ideas. Each VHS about funding or workload has thinned from overuse. All are bored and want something new to happen. Each union contributes to a cacophony of noise – all negative, never positive – and there is no clear, constructive voice wanting to lead and learn. Whatever current minister is in charge looks out of the window, wanting to be elsewhere: the Treasury, the Home Office. God, even DfID

Asked what they are rebelling against, the NEU teaching union, bloated and Brando-like at the back, replies: “Whadda you got?” Eeyore-like, curmudgeonly, miserabilist, anti-this and anti-that, they have come to resemble those hormonal teenagers their members fail to get something positive out of every day, eyes raised all the time, asking distracting questions.

Meanwhile, the Chartered College of Teaching is the colleague observing from the side, not knowing their role, or who to support: terribly eager to help, but mostly ignored. The average teacher sits there like most of the class, thinking of better days, wishing that adults were in back in control. 

New vision

Perhaps I’m being too cynical; perhaps Gavin Williamson has a new vision that he is going to leak to the press as soon as he’s found and returned his redundancy cheque. And perhaps he really does have direct access to a prime minister whose current fiscal planning resembles Viv Nicholson, rather than the traditionalist Tory Scrooges of the past. Some new funding could be grabbed from the Treasury before the UK transitions to a Mad Max-like dystopia where the middle classes, nine sharing platters from irritation, desperately start stockpiling organic extra virgin olive oil and nduja sausage. 

Perhaps but, then again, perhaps not. Regardless, you can quickly discern that in all these likely scenarios, education and learning, and having a clear sense of what teachers and children should be doing and why, are largely absent. The joy of learning, of developing, creating, becoming interested and excited in really getting to know the complexities of a subject, and imparting one’s expertise – such things have vanished from our national discourse.

The future of schools is being debated by people who, too often, have never taught a lesson or who loved teaching so much they couldn’t wait to get out of it and become a consultant. 

The business of education

So, sometimes it is hard not to be cynical, not to feel that we have reached an impasse in education. At every level, and in every sector, money dominates like never before. That innately oxymoronic phrase, “the business of education”, reductive and dispiriting, dominates thinking. Conversations sound like endless doors shutting.

Pensions, pay, funding, fees – we have allowed the language of that dismal science to infect our thinking and decide policy. But we should fight that corrosive urge to be pessimistic. 

And so perhaps the first thing Gavin Williamson could do is to get the tone of the language being used right. Important though funding is for schools – and headteachers are struggling right now with the challenges awaiting them in the coming academic year – there has to be a wider discussion that goes beyond the purely fiscal. And trust has to be on both sides because, as any good teacher will tell you, establishing the right relationship at the start of a new term is vital. 

A new teacher is in the room, the class waits for his first words. Let’s try to look forward and learn, rather than look back and argue. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School, an independent school in Dorset

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