Whispers from Westminster

2nd October 2015 at 01:00
Checks and balances

Jonathan Simons is head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange. This is the first of his new weekly columns on policy and education

Politics is easy to understand. “Poly” from the Greek, meaning many. And “tics”: horrible blood-sucking creatures. Or so said the front cover of my 18th birthday card from my parents.

Bad jokes aside, this is exactly what this new column will cover: the politics of education policy.

It will look at what is happening and what might be coming up in Westminster, what the politicians are thinking about and major announcements by the government and opposition parties.

A few things to note before we get started. First, I’m not a teacher. I never have been and I don’t claim to be one. Although this column will inevitably touch on classroom and pedagogical issues, it will be from the perspective of politics and policy. My background is as someone who has worked in and around government for the past 10 years and currently leads education work for the Policy Exchange thinktank.

In my spare time, I have also co-founded and chair the board of governors for a free school.

Second, I like politics – and I like politicians. Unfashionable as it might be to say, I’ve never met a politician involved in education policy from any main party who didn’t have the best of intentions – who didn’t genuinely want to improve things for pupils and for the education system as a whole. So this column will always give politicians a fair crack of the whip.

That doesn’t mean it will be uncritical, but it will often mean defending them and explaining their motives – because most received wisdom and conventional thinking is about how terrible they all are. I expect there to be frequent disagreements on this point.

Third, I have a thesis that the only thing worse than politics in education is politicians not being involved in education. I’m a big fan of including experts in policymaking, but they must work alongside, rather than instead of, elected ministers and their shadows.

All too often, a call for “let the experts decide” means “let people like me have more say”. Education is inextricably linked to the most fundamental discussions of what we are as a society, what it means to grow as individuals and how we nurture future generations. We can’t possibly have such decisions taken solely on dry, technocratic grounds.

Fourth, times are going to be very hard over the next few years, certainly compared with the past 15 years or so. But schools will remain in a better position – politically, trust-wise, even financially – than many other public services. And the shining beacon on the hill is that there is a tremendous amount of capability out there to take the agenda forward.

The government’s focus over the next five years should be to work with all relevant organisations to strengthen the capacity of the system to lead, while always retaining ultimate oversight – which will, make no mistake, occasionally mean making decisions that school leaders and teachers don’t like.

So welcome. I look forward to the ride.

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