When engaged in war, wise counsel would say that to win, you should pick your battles carefully and don’t fight on too many fronts. Or, as that dogged old bruiser Winston Churchill put it: “You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to shy a stone at every dog that barks.”
It’s a message that education should take on board.
On the road to rebuilding the school system, there are many battles being fought – against the devastating funding cuts being inflicted on schools, the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, the future of Ofsted, the English Baccalaureate and the new generation of grammar schools.
The battle eclipsing all others, however, is the last.
Why is the profession determined to expend so much ammunition fighting a battle it thinks is a sideshow?
When the secretary of state for education Justine Greening spoke at the Association of School and College Leaders conference last week, it was in conciliatory tones and along similar lines to her speech at the Chartered College of Teaching – the importance of teachers, professionalising teaching and so on. In short, she said she wanted to work with the profession, not against it.
Then came the inevitable grammar school question.
It was the assembled crowd’s response to her answer that made the headlines. Not the crippling cuts, nor the recruitment crisis. No, leading the news was the story of the nation’s headteachers jeering the education secretary.
Yes, these are febrile and frustrating times. But even her fiercest opponent must allow that prime minister Theresa May is determined to provide more grammar schools for bright poor children. She isn’t going to relent. Her education secretary, whatever her personal beliefs, has to deliver. Her critics can marshal all the compelling evidence against them they like but the government doesn’t care. In grammars, it believes it has a vote-winning brand with a rags-to-riches romantic myth wrapped round it.
Look at what's important
Before the ASCL conference, Geoff Barton, general secretary-elect, said: “We should be more resolute in our belief that we, the system leaders, must be ever-more involved in shaping, not just enforcing, policy”. Mr Barton is correct. Yet “shaping” entails negotiation and diplomacy. It also involves an appreciation of which battles can be won and, as importantly, which are best avoided.
One of the most compelling arguments against new grammars is that the policy is a distraction; there are so many more important issues confronting education. Why then is the profession determined to expend so much ammunition fighting a battle it thinks is a sideshow with bullets that bounce off an implacable prime minister?
The profession does not have to relinquish its fierce opposition to grammars. But it should realise that there are costs to the prosecution of an unwinnable war.
If Ms Greening is seen to be failing on grammars, be in no doubt that there is a Tory hardliner lined up in the wings to force them through. And should the Easter teacher conferences continue to attack grammar schools to the detriment of funding problems and the recruitment crisis, no one should be surprised if that is all the public sees. Theological spats over selection can seem remarkably irrelevant to a parent whose child’s school has trouble keeping teachers and paying the bills.
Fighting the good fight may enthuse the righteous. But, as Churchill would have pointed out, glorious defeats do not win wars.