When it is the government that gets put into special measures

21st May 2010 at 01:00
The national drama feels oddly familiar - a bit like a head getting the chop, with the public as Ofsted

The seismic past fortnight has demonstrated the beauty and brutality of the British political system. In Downing Street, his workplace and lair for more than a decade, Gordon Brown gave a speech of extraordinary poignancy and dignity.

"I have been privileged to learn much about the very best in human nature and a fair amount too about its frailties, including my own," he said. "Above all, it was a privilege to serve. And yes, I loved the job not for its prestige, its titles and its ceremony - which I do not love at all."

"Thank you and goodbye," he said, as the door behind him opened. His family joined him, and the dominant figure of recent politics clutched the hand of son Fraser, and led his family out of Number Ten and into history. Behind the scenes, overflowing boxes were packed for the removal lorry.

If we needed a reminder of the way the British political system is predicated on the imperative of continuity, this was it: upheaval, turmoil, anguish, deal-making - all distilled into a surface symbolism of smooth transition. A few hours later David Cameron spoke from the same spot. A new era shuffled in.

That includes, of course, Michael Gove as the new Education Secretary. Here's a man who knows that symbolism matters. Within minutes those laughable logos of the old Department for Children, Schools and Families were being hastily unscrewed from any visible door or wall at Sanctuary Buildings. Stunted children climbing ladders to construct a rainbow was always a vaguely chilling image. I'm sure in some designer's mind it portrayed a shimmering dream of young people building a nirvana of equality and undiminished happiness. To me it had the lingering menace of so many images from childhood - the disagreeable yellow-trousered jollity of Rupert Bear; the chilly emotional void of the Clangers; the indefinable threat of Mr Benn, lurking in changing rooms dressed as who-knows-what.

In the place of Weebles clambering up Meccano kits comes something more austere - monotone type and a simple statement: Department for Education. The new austerity had arrived.

And perhaps we should, at the very least, rejoice in the choice of preposition: it's a Department "for" rather than "of" education, as it once was. Quite how "for" remains to be seen, and many will watch with interest to see whether the often over-cosy social partnership of teacher unions and government survives. Whatever happens, it seems a case of out with the new and in with the old-fangled.

That first night of the Gove era, I had an idle look at the Department's website. Already - less than a few hours after the Secretary of State had arrived - things had changed. The design had turned a kind of wisteria blue, and the welcome message pronounced darkly that all previous material was now banished to some form of cyber skip. In the "Meet the team" section we met the lone beaming face of our new leader, red cheeked, scrubbed and self-assured, like the ever-reliable Julian in the Famous Five books.

So here we find ourselves, emphatically under new management. And we have witnessed a drama on the national stage that echoes what happens in schools all too frequently and certainly not in politically fashionable fixed terms.

If the British population might briefly be cast as Ofsted inspectors, they had given their judgment on the nation's senior management: inadequate. Thus, with all the unspoken brutality we see when schools topple into special measures, the leader gets the boot. The only difference last week was that Gordon Brown was given time to make a farewell speech. In schools, most headteachers disappear amid compromise agreements, parental mutterings and occasional reported sightings. Schools, too, can then undergo rebranding.

There has been much speculation about what an agenda that both combines and ditches elements of the Liberal and Conservative election manifestos might hold in store. Will it be a coherent strategy for raising standards, trusting in school leaders and knowing when to leave us be? Or are we paused briefly at some deceptive moment of teetering calm before our rollercoaster carriage hurtles downhill into another dizzying period of curriculum change and structural tinkering?

There is one thing many of us might earnestly hope - that the momentum to raise standards without reinforcing social injustice might continue. Preparing myself for the much-anticipated new austerity, I've just read David Kynaston's Family Britain, a sweeping social survey of Britain between 1951 and 1957. I had assumed that one of the lessons might be that grammar schools had successfully liberated working-class youngsters in deprived areas, as popular mythology has tended to suggest. In fact, quoting Ross McKibbin's study Classes and Culture, Kynaston reveals that "in most parts of the country the proportion of free places won by working-class children was no higher in 1950 than in 1914, and in some places lower".

With no tangible end in sight to the postcode lottery of British education, let's keep equity and quality as our main ambitions. Because if Mr Gove is to "introduce young people to the best that has been thought and written", it should be for all children, irrespective of background and the savviness of their parents. It's something every local school should aspire to do consistently and to the highest standard for all. Success would make "choice" an irrelevant word in education.

Geoff Barton, Head of King Edward VI School, Suffolk.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today