'Ministers look at the school system like a trainset – and then start meddling'

19th June 2017 at 16:13
We can but hope that the latest set of ministers will listen to advice from the sector

My family enjoys a longstanding joke concerning doctors. With many medics among my relations, the rest of us constantly observe how rarely doctors act decisively. “Wait and see,” is more-often-than-not the advice provided – and don’t expect to get an antibiotic unless you are at death’s door.

We churn the old joke out year after year when we get together. But of course, it’s not bad advice. I often repeat the so-called Zen Commandment to new heads: don’t just do something, sit there. People are always keen to bounce us into precipitative action.

It would also be excellent guidance for the Department for Education, now Theresa May’s recent reshuffle has left Justine Greening at the DfE. We might regret the disappearance of former children’s minister Edward Timpson, who lost his seat, a gifted and deeply caring man for whom the vocation to care for children took precedence over party-political lines. Robert Goodwill will take his place, and Anne Milton takes over skills and apprenticeships, replacing Robert Halfon, sacked by the PM.

Milton is a former health minister and Goodwill has previously done transport and immigration: so what do those two bring to education?

That question is always asked when new ministers arrive. What do they know about their new brief? To be fair, they don’t need to be experts on education: but we’d all like them to listen to experts.

Ed Dorrell wrote on Thursday about schools minister Nick Gibb, pictured above and a long-term DfE fixture. He’s not famous for listening: he has strong views on teaching maths (learning times-tables) and reading (absolute adherence to phonics), and seeks to push those methods onto schools.

They’re not daft ideas in themselves. The problem lies in imposing them as the single desirable solution: they aren’t, not for every child.

Therein lies the danger. Ministers get their train set to play with, but some are better than others at resisting the temptation to pursue their own pet projects. Did I say pursue? I guess I meant drive through.

It is worth noting that Justine Greening has, as secretary of state, demonstrated a willingness to listen, and appears to work from the point of view of improving life chances for children rather than following political dogma. She will be relieved not to be obliged to push through the controversial grammar schools programme: given the parlous state of Theresa May’s government, that scheme must surely be relegated to the backburner (or further).

Above all, let’s do all we can to ensure that professionals and experts are there to guide and advise these ministers when this weakened government finally accepts that it needs them.

And when they do, let’s hope they pause, listen to our advice and doesn’t do anything rash.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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