Justine Greening risks becoming profoundly isolated from the teaching profession

6th November 2016 at 07:20
Education secretary
All education secretaries need advice from the profession, but with the new grammar schools policy, Ms Greening is going to have trouble finding anyone who'll be prepared to help out

All effective education secretaries need experienced teachers to advise them on how their policies will work in practice. As such, it should be of some considerable concern that Justine Greening risks becoming profoundly isolated from the teaching profession. Perhaps more so than any of her recent predecessors.
 
Her problem is that, in education, there are few better ways to lose friends and alienate people than to announce plans for a raft of new grammar schools.
 
Michael Gove, of course, was the 'bete noire' of whole swathes of teachers, and was more than happy to take the profession on, but even he recognised that he needed a cadre of go-to heads and teachers to namecheck in speeches, to turn to as allies when the going got tough, and to consult about what he was planning.
 
Setting to one side that a fair few of these Govian friends have since fallen foul of the law, Ms Greening does not have the luxury of such a circle – and that’s mainly down to the near-consensus in opposition to new grammar schools.
 
To prove this point, let’s survey the educational landscape for a moment. Where might Ms Greening look to for friends, allies, or simply classroom teachers to talk to? Let’s start with the unions, the obvious natural conduit of the profession’s opinion and experience.
 
Any formal relationship with these organisations was abruptly ended in 2010, when Mr Gove shut down the “social partnership”, a formal consultative body that took in many of the heads’ and teachers’ organisations, which was consulted on policy and could advise ministers on its formulation.
 
But he was savvy enough not to sever all ties with unions and, for example, maintained an unofficial working relationship with certain sections of the ASCL leadership. There were, and remain, a decent number of secondary heads who sympathised with his reforms in academisation and curriculum.
 
But these informal relations have quickly soured with the announcement of a return to selection – and with Geoff Barton’s recently announced decision to campaign to become ASCL’s new general secretary, this relationship is only likely to become more fractious.
 
Mr Gove’s dealings with the NAHT and primary heads was more universally frosty. But if Ms Greening thought she’d be rebooting this relationship with the announcement last month of her wide-ranging review of primary testing, she’d have been wrong. Of course the primary community were pleased: but pleased enough to roll out the welcome mat for Ms Greening? I'm told the answer is, certainly not. Most in the primary sector are still licking their wounds from the chronic mismanagement of primary assessment this year.
 
The classroom unions themselves are as militant as they have been for many a year, buoyed on by years of below inflation pay rises and a workload crisis. The birth over the coming years of a new super-union when the NUT and ATL come together may neutralise some of the more lunatic fringes of NUT hard-left politics, but Ms Greening will be disappointed if she thinks there will be many friendly voices among the moderates prepared to give her the time of day. There won't be.
 
And so to the neo-trad New Blob, the kind of teachers who could be found attending Tom Bennett’s annual ResearchEd rally. These were Mr Gove’s shock troops. He knew he could rely on the likes of Mr Bennett, Robert Peal or Katharine Birbalsingh for advice and support. As did Nicky Morgan. I’ve written before about how emotionally traumatised this group has been by recent policy pronouncements on selection. Suffice to say: they’re not going to be knocking down the front door of Sanctuary Buildings to have warm policy chats with the new ministerial incumbents, at least while they perceive their dream of an academic education for all children is under attack from No 10.
 
When one of their high priests, Teach First’s executive director, Sam Freedman, himself a former Gove adviser, is regularly attacking ministers for sanctioning more new grammars, you really know the relationship has soured.
 
Where next? Surely those in the selective sector could be called upon to help out with some advice from the chalkface? Not so, it would seem. In the last 24 hours I have spoken to two senior figures from the sector very reticent to find anything positive to say about the government’s grammar school green paper.
 
So the list of the list of potential teacher help looks almost vanishingly thin. But what of the Ofsted chief inspector? After all, this was a role that was, at least in part, originally conceived as something rather like a chief education officer. One problem: Sir Michael Wilshaw’s successor, Amanda Spielman, has never been a teacher. She too will be looking for advice from the chalkface and is pretty much guaranteed a warmer reception than Ms Greening.
 
All that leaves just Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, as the only name left to focus on. He is, of course, now a civil servant, and no longer a practising head. And as any teacher will tell you, even just a year or two away from the classroom leaves you out of touch with what's really going on.
 
Will a few pearls of wisdom from SDC be enough? For policy conception and implementation to really work, there has to be communication between the profession and their education secretary: either publicly or privately. Ideally both. Heads and teachers know what works, and they know what is possible. Politicians and senior civil servants largely do not.
 
Who, pray, is going to sit in Justine’s office telling her what really happens in classrooms? 

Ed Dorrell is head of content at the TES
 

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