Exchange of heart

3rd February 2017 at 00:00
John Blake welcomed Theresa May's push for more academic selection
The new head of education at the right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange is former left-wing NUT activist John Blake. Here, the teacher tells Martin George how angry activists and Brexit helped transform his political perspective

As someone who was recently invited into 10 Downing Street to advise on ministers’ controversial grammar school plans, John Blake could justifiably be described as one of the country’s most influential teachers.

And this week that influence only grew as it was announced that the 35-year-old would be heading education for Policy Exchange, a leading centre-right thinktank, co-founded by Michael Gove.

That represents quite a political journey for Blake, a former left-wing NUT activist.

Today he has the ear of Conservative ministers – but it was only eight years ago that he was railing against “the public schoolboys and inveterate teacher-haters of the Tory Party”.

His change in perspective could probably be partly explained by the misgivings that Blake also developed about his fellow teaching union activists.

“I began to think that quite a lot of these people were in it for the chance to have a good shout, and when you’re a student maybe that’s fair enough,” he reflects.

“But when you’re a working teacher and trying to make a difference to what the education system is, it’s not good enough to turn up to NUT conference for four days and just nod along to ridiculous motions and crass denunciations of government ministers.”

Protests against tuition fees

Blake had a comprehensive school education and he was the first in his family to go to university. He says that during his time at Oxford, he was on the “left of the Labour Party” – although “never a proper Trot” – and staged student occupations to protest against tuition fees.

He tells TES that he never felt excluded by former public school pupils during his time amid the dreaming spires. But “I didn’t perhaps understand enough how you seize and create job opportunities,” he reflects.

“People I knew were doing internships at Goldman Sachs and I just went back and was a handyman in a hospital.”

I began to think that quite a lot of these people were in it for the chance to have a good shout...

As an activist, he had expected student numbers to be hit by rising tuition fees. The fact they were not helped to plant a seed for his political metamorphosis. He learned that “you can’t just assume people will behave the way you expect them to, or how it would be convenient for your politics for them to behave”.

After university, he worked as a teaching assistant in Edinburgh and completed a PGCE in history in London.

He taught for two years in King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford – an experience that would take on greater significance with the current government’s pivot towards academic selection.

And it was in Essex that he became a representative for the NUT.

“Having been a student unionist it seemed to me obvious that I would become a trade unionist,” he says. “I thought that unions were the place to go both to make sure the teachers were getting representation, but also to build the sort of education system I thought was important.”

But by the time he had moved to Camden in North London, it was, he said, “already becoming clear that my politics and the union’s politics were diverging somewhat. It was quite a far-left stronghold of the NUT even then, and I definitely was not of that ilk.”

His view of the NUT’s annual Easter conferences only highlighted that fissure.

“It wasn’t making much of a difference for the teachers because government didn’t take them seriously,” the father-of-three argues. “And it didn’t make much difference for the kids because the things that needed to be done were being endlessly challenged and stopped in their tracks.”

The final straw came at the union’s 2012 conference in Torquay. The Financial Times described Blake and fellow delegate Simon Horne as “two lonely dissenters who defied a hostile reception to voice a more moderate view”.

“It wasn’t really the far left that were the problem”, he says now. “It was the other moderates – the people who would speak to me privately and agree with me but who weren’t prepared to stand up and actually do anything about it.

“It was the penultimate night of the conference and I was sitting in a hotel room on the phone to my other half and my son and I just thought ‘why am I here?’, and literally packed my bags, got on a train and went home.”

Time for a change

Blake resigned from the NUT immediately afterwards. But his involvement in left-ofcentre politics continued as he came up with the idea for the Labour Teachers blog. It was an attempt to bring policymakers together with teachers, who he felt were not being realistic about what they were asking for and about the constraints that politicians operate under.

Blake remained in the Labour Party until six months ago. But by then, some aspects of the Conservative’s education programme were already interesting him.

He wanted to “make a difference” by going into the new types of schools emerging from the Gove revolution: and took jobs as assistant head of the London Academy of Excellence, the first sixth-form free school, and latterly, in 2015, as history consultant and leading practitioner at the Harris Federation.

I just thought, 'Why am I here?' And I got on a train and went home

Blake’s priorities included the “giving shape and form” to the government’s policy agenda – including what a knowledge-rich history curriculum looks like and how is it assessed effectively.

He views last year’s Brexit vote as an important stage on his political journey. It led him to ask himself how it was possible that the elites had no inkling of what was going to happen.

“There is something wrong with our politics if we’ve got that bifurcation between the political class and what’s going on out there.”

Blake argues that something similar has happened in education policy. The governing classes had rejected grammar schools for generations, but, for Blake, they are not as unpopular in the country as the elite had assumed. He welcomed Theresa May’s push for more academic selection.

“There is a serious intent to make clear to people who have felt that their policy preferences have not been taken into account that they are being considered,” he says. “That, I think, is really important.”

The No 10 policy team invited him in for advice, and he told them “there are things that need to be explored here”, and he wants to try to help develop that. It is a key attraction of his new role.

“We want to help shape the debate with all political parties, and helping shape government policy directly is what Policy Exchange has been very, very successful at,” he says. “It’s a huge attraction of the job. It has set the agenda, and we want to continue doing that.”


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