'Note to the education secretary: Never let the heads turn against you'

4th May 2016 at 18:18
In his second fortnightly column for TES, celebrated education journalist Richard Garner reviews last weekend's NAHT conference

I can remember chatting to Sir Michael Barber when he was David Blunkett's policy adviser about a new education policy initiative that the Labour government was bringing in.

I was saying that it seemed to have got backs up in most of the teachers' unions, mentioning them by name, the NASUWT, NUT and ATL.

"Ah," he said, "but what does the NAHT think about it?"  He was anxious to know as he felt there was a need to get headteachers on board if it was to succeed.

So how does Nicky Morgan shape up if that is considered an important rule of thumb for successful policy introduction?

The answer, after last weekend's NAHT conference, is not very well. Forget the heckling and the laughter that greeted some of her comments – that's par for the course when a minister is addressing a teachers' union conference.  They are bound to let off steam if there's something they disagree with.

No, the really worrying thing is that her address appears to have had the effect of stiffening resistance to the government's policy of forced academisation for every school by 2022. It was only after she had stopped speaking – and indicated there would be no retreat on it – that heads got together to draft an amendment to their motion on the subject to talk about considering industrial action "as a last resort" to thwart the policy.

One head, Janice Turner, told the conference: "We've been threatened, we've been blackmailed, we've been pushed but still we haven't gone [to convert to academies]." 

Another head, Julie Simpson, added: "Give headteachers the money [to be spent on conversion] to improve not destroy the education system."

A third head, Mike Millman, described Ms Morgan as "Little Miss Disingenuous" for being economical with the truth when talking about the benefits she saw coming from the conference.

Heads, it was clear, were seriously exercised by the policy. Even some principals of academies spoke in favour of the industrial action motion.

Ms Morgan and the government do appear now to have been backed into a corner from which it will be difficult to escape. Might be worth taking a leaf out of Sir Michael's book?

Religious strife

It was an interesting debate on whether to call on the government to withdraw the right of parents to remove their children from religious education classes. It was eventually passed by the conference.

Speaker after speaker said it was the only lesson on the timetable where pupils could gain some insight into other cultures and religions – essential if we are to help steer young people away from those who would radicalise them into joining extremist sects.

It was also pointed out that RE is the only subject that carries this right for parents – and this was generally used to exempt pupils from lessons explaining Hinduism, Judaism and lessons on the Muslim faith. As one speaker said, it was the equivalent of allowing a parent to say: "I like English but I'm not that keen on adjectives."

I personally sympathised with a couple of speakers who suggested the right way forward was to ensure these topics were covered in compulsory PSHE lessons – but the government has made it clear that is not going to happen. The speakers for the motion had a fair point.

Same, same – but different

I now bring you the thoughts of David Cameron. Asked by the NAHT conference magazine for his predictions for 2016, he said: "I fear it will get worse before it gets better. There are clear signs that the current government has gone too far in its ideological commitments and has divided its own supporters and alarmed parents."

I could leave it at that but feel it is only fair to point out that David Cameron in question is a former head of children's service in Scotland not the incumbent of 10 Downing Street.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and has been writing about education for more than three decades

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