‘At the turn of 2014, our seemingly civilised secretary of state presides over a philistine age in education'
Geoff Barton (pictured), headteacher of King Edward VI School, a comprehensive secondary in Bury St Edmunds, writes:
Hello 2014, we've been expecting you. And lots of us hope you're going to be more fun than 2013.
What was it about last year that made it so miserable for so many education folk?
In his magisterial book 1913: The Year Before the Great Storm, author Florian Illies looks back to why it was that in the year before the eruption of the Great War, so many people across Europe felt such apparent communal anxiety, such a sense of shared foreboding. One theory was that because the year contained a 13 everyone's latent superstition kicked in. 1913 was terrible because people expected it to be terrible.
So perhaps – if you're of a superstitious nature – 2013 was always destined to be a year to forget. Or perhaps, clutching after more rational explanations, it was the year when a frenzy of post-election policymaking converged to create a swirling maelstrom of chaotic missed opportunities.
That, plus a new, more bellicose and destructive tone from Ofsted, which has meant that if you were a teacher on Ofsted Watch, then only on Wednesday evenings did the rhythm of your bowel movements begin to regain some kind of normality. (Which, for any non-educationists reading this, is not an exaggeration.)
So let's leave 2013 to slope off to the newspaper-lined basket in the corner of the kitchen like some ageing dog whose incontinence has become intolerable. And let's turn instead to Michael Gove.
2014 marks the final full year before there's an election. And we can foresee lots of assessments of Mr Gove's tenure as secretary of state. Based on the various paeans already received by various right-leaning organs of the press, I think we can safely assume that – unless something goes disastrously wrong in the months ahead and some ordure converges with the ventilator – then he will be garlanded with the title of best education secretary in the world ever.
To his credit, he's certainly stuck at the job and will likely prove one of the longest-serving education secretaries of the modern age. But many crave quality as well as quantity, and I am not convinced that his true legacy will be remembered as brilliant.
Only time will truly tell and any real assessment of his achievements will need to wait until an age when I'll be in an old people's home.
But that won't stop me getting out my crystal balls and proposing three reasons that Michael Gove's legacy won't be anything like the truly groundbreaking work of a true Tory reformer, Kenneth Baker, whose legacy includes changes to teacher training, a national curriculum and paving the way for the specialist school movement.
First, amid the flurry of early pronouncements, there was a rhetoric and a reality that has proved divisive and distracting. The notion of becoming an academy seduced some schools, but most heads confess to me that it wasn't a really a yearning for liberation that motivated them, it was a dash for cash. Many school leaders now report a labyrinthine bureaucratic tangle that has too often distracted them from what really matters: improving teaching.
Similarly, another part of Mr Gove's legacy will be a splintering of the system. The sense of shared mission that the specialist schools movement brought us has too often been replaced by competition and atomisation. Free schools in their earliest days exemplified this; deliberately, it seemed, encouraging parents in some leafier environs to keep their children away from the plebs in the town down the road.
That sense of divisiveness struck me most when late last year – and slightly unexpectedly – I found myself invited to be the keynote speaker at the National Dance Teachers Association's annual conference at the magnificent Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich. They asked me, I suspect, because I believe that dance matters hugely in any school, as with the other arts.
Yet the pervading mood was a gloomy sense of being under attack, with dispiriting tales of schools chasing the English and Maths performance measure by abandoning arts-based GCSEs and, pretty disgracefully in my view, apparently telling students they can't attend extra-curricular music, dance, drama or art sessions if their target grade is a C and they're currently working at D. They have to submit to an extra maths or English "intervention" instead.
Thus our most urbane, well-read and seemingly civilised secretary of state presides over as philistine an age in education as many of us have known. And amid all the hype of international comparisons, the very attribute that many overseas educationalists look enviously to us for is our explicit cultivation of creativity. We should be savouring it, not marginalising it.
Finally, and most devastatingly, my prediction is that on Michael Gove's watch the quality of teaching will not have improved. Kenneth Baker achieved this: with his eponymous Baker Days he signalled that you only improved teaching by creating a nascent culture in which teachers planned and reviewed together. David Blunkett did the same. With his undoubtedly flawed, bureaucratic National Strategies, at least he established materials to promote high quality teaching and – crucially – materials to use in high quality training.
The current administration's only Education Act was entitled "The Importance of Teaching". It promised a lot. Yet, when the smoke drifts away in the years to come, my guess is that it will be seen as strong on structural and procedural change, with plenty of stuff that has caught the headlines, but too little to make it easier to recruit high-quality teachers and/or to keep improving the ones we have already.
So, from where I sit, 2014 is looking like a pretty decisive one in our nation's proud education history and also for judging the ultimate effectiveness of our secretary of state.
As one gets older, one become more aware of the passing of time, of the way governments and politicians come and go. I'd suggest that in a decisive year we should lead our schools decisively – ignoring gimmicks, staying true to our moral purpose and remembering what it is that we came into this great profession to do.
Because it would be appalling if our own legacy in schools is that we made the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons and betrayed a generation of young people who need more great teachers in more great local schools that know that high standards come from – not instead of – creativity, a love of real learning and a sense of optimism.
That mission should stay constant, whoever's in charge.