Come what May, let’s value teacher expertise

5th August 2016 at 01:00
The new PM may be distracted by Brexit, but schools must not be neglected, argues David Blunkett, her opposite number when she was shadow education secretary

A fortnight on from Theresa May becoming prime minister, the one thing we know about her is that very few people know anything about her. Reams have been written and much has been said, but in the end, May will be making up her own story as she endeavours to lead what is undoubtedly a right-wing cabinet in the direction of attempting to heal a divided nation.

At first glance, this is a contradiction in terms, especially since some cabinet members have made their names by being extremely nasty, unpleasant and sometimes downright mendacious about their opponents. Yes, we have more women in the campaign, but as we saw during the brief and ultimately aborted Tory leadership campaign, men do not have a monopoly on divisiveness.

My own experience of May is twofold. First, when she was briefly the shadow education secretary from June 1999, and more recently in the tour de force of her six years as home secretary. Setting to one side the fact that the Home Office no longer contains what is now the Ministry of Justice, this is a formidable achievement.

Serving the public

I hope that both these experiences have made her, as I am, deeply committed to the public sector. I believe that those who choose to serve in it because it is a service rather that a commercial enterprise will go the extra mile. But my concern is that for someone like May – who is right-wing ideologically and is surrounded by people who believe that public service is bad and private enterprise is good – I am far from convinced that she will.

(My clashes with the teaching profession were not about privatisation or fragmentation but about improvement in standards in the classroom and intolerance of anyone complacent about the life chances of young people in the most deprived parts of our country.)

So, as prime minster, will May have both the wisdom and the values to be able to heal the country? First up, May, her new education secretary Justine Greening and their ministerial team must hear the message loud and clear from both the top and the teaching profession that the ideologically driven revolution has to come to an end: they must know that enough is enough.

May and her team must stop denigration of educational expertise and promote and spread the best practice. They must get the message across to young people that the adults who nurture and teach them have our confidence, respect, support and collaboration.

The ideological absurdity of messing about with exams and testing regimes to the point that children believe they have failed when they haven’t, and teachers are denigrated when previously they were applauded, must stop. Hence the need to set aside the recent key stage 2 “assessment without levels” debacle.

Driven as it was by the reappointed schools minister Nick Gibb and those advising him, this fiasco would at any other time in our recent history – when eyes were not diverted on to the theatre of the political stage – have led to heads rolling.

So what do we know about May’s views on education? We know that she is instinctively sympathetic to grammar schools, while also understanding that education is key to making a difference when it comes to the staggeringly different life chances of young people in our society.

During her brief sojourn into education all those years ago, Labour was in the driving seat. Not simply because of the overwhelming parliamentary majority but because this was a moment in time when a clear policy direction had been laid out, resources were beginning to be invested and results even at this early stage were beginning to show through.

As such, it is hard to know whether May has the commitment and enthusiasm for education that will allow her to square the circle and deal with the numerous contradictions that exist in the Conservatives’ current schools policy: theoretical autonomy for schools with “standardisation” as the mantra for multi-academy trusts; freedom to experiment but top-down approaches not only to the ever-narrowing national curriculum and English Baccalaureate but also to what is to be read, how teachers should teach and the imposition of the latest fads in didactic methodology.

But my greatest fear, which is fairly obvious when you think about it, is that this incoming government will give little thought to what is happening to the education service or tackling the confusion and bewilderment that exists in schools across England.

The reason that this might happen is clear: the next two years and more will be completely overwhelmed by the disentanglement of the UK from the European Union and the need to forge new relationships internationally. At every level of our lives, and in every area of policy, this will be the overwhelming driving force, sucking in like a black hole attention, resources and political prowess for those involved.

If only – if only! – that meant schools would be left alone to build on the progress already made, consolidate the changes introduced and do what good leaders and world-class teachers do best: teach. Then this just might be a moment for a modest rejoicing. But rather than schools being left in peace, I suspect that it will feel more like neglect.

David Blunkett is a former Labour minister who served as secretary of state for education and employment from 1997-2001

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