Towards the end of Michael Gove’s reign as education secretary, it became something of a challenge to explain to lay folk how much he was loathed by teachers. Too often it sounded like hyperbole.
So it was impressive how quickly Mr Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan – a green politician with limited experience of schooling beyond her own childhood – grasped how dysfunctional the relationship between government and the teaching profession had become. Indeed, when tens of thousands of teachers responded to her Workload Challenge it seemed to illustrate well-developed political antennae.
And although the responses to this vast consultation exercise were hardly earth-shattering, they were well thought-through – and welcomed by many.
It is with some sadness, then, that I report that Ms Morgan and her team are beginning to appear a little complacent.
Suspicions were first raised a few months ago when influential schools minister Nick Gibb commented that the already well-documented recruitment crisis wasn’t a crisis at all, merely a challenge. Images of Eggwina Currie sprang to mind.
And the feeling has only become stronger, with repeated assertions from within the Department for Education that budgets are being protected from the chancellor’s austerity axe, when just about anybody who works in schools knows that spending feels seriously squeezed (see Stephen Petty’s biting satire).
Then comes news this week that another minister, Lord Nash, reckons the government has pretty much got the pupil places crisis licked. His confidence that the prime minister’s promised 500 free schools – together with a far-fetched plan to build multistorey secondaries – are enough to handle the massive bulge in the secondary pupil population seems naive for a businessman who made his name in private equity.
I don’t believe these positions are wilful. Similarly, I don’t believe they betray a purposeful dereliction of duty. Think what you like about their policies, but there is enough in Mr Gibb and Lord Nash’s CVs to be confident that both care deeply about schools and the pupils contained therein.
But as we approach George Osborne’s Autumn Statement next month, which will no doubt include more bad news for schools, we need a little honesty from education’s ministerial team. After all, wasn’t Mr Osborne’s catchphrase once “we’re all in this together”?
Everyone in education knows it’s very, very tough out there, and most understand that, whether they like it or not, it’s going to get harder before it gets easier. Neutral and sensible estimates suggest heads are going to face budget cuts of up to 12 per cent in the next five years. Why not come clean about it?
Similarly, why not ’fess up that ministers and civil servants are going to have to work bloody hard – and imaginatively – if the teacher supply and pupil places crises are to be resolved?
There’s a synonym for complacency that’s been much bandied around since May’s general election: coasting. God forbid that Ms Morgan et al be accused of that. As hundreds of schools are discovering, it’s not a good look.