Whispers from Westminster

11th March 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

I recently returned from the cavernous surroundings of the Birmingham Hilton, where I was lucky enough to be attending the Association of School and College Leaders’ annual conference. There were far fewer politicians this year, which was a shame (though I’m not entirely sure that my fellow attendees would agree).

To fill the space on Friday, we had a keynote from a speaker who was billed as a “global social commentator”. The speaker urged us all to consider “who guides the guides?” and asked the several hundred headteachers to sit in silence for 30 seconds and meditate on why we did what we did, and then share our thoughts.

I found it buttock-clenchingly awkward, but most people looked more serene. Or maybe they were all deploying their “Yes, very interesting assembly, Year 8” faces while mentally compiling lists of all the work that they had to do.

But beyond this blue-sky thinking there were a few pointers for us committed – and discerning – education policy wonks to take away. In his customary appearance, Sir Michael Wilshaw growled his way through his speech.

He had a great opening gag, first apologising for his absence last year owing to a cardiac operation, but then noting how it had an upside because it proved, once and for all, that he did have a heart.

He then spent 30 minutes criticising the independent sector, reality education shows, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, northern politicians, key stage 3 provision for the most able, education consultants and further education, before ending his address by calling for everyone to share in the important task of talking the profession up. (Doesn’t look like he’s preparing for a quiet exit at the end of the year.)

NiMo (aka the education secretary Nicky Morgan) spoke on Saturday, which I always think is a tougher slot, as delegates’ energy levels naturally wane.

Her speechwriter is clearly on an alliterative buzz – the title of her speech was “End the demography of destiny” which is the route to “educational excellence everywhere” (via a fair funding formula, presumably).

It can only be a matter of time before we hear ministers talking of an ambitious age of assessment, or welcoming the coherence of a core curriculum. I would say this, because I’ve been banging on about it for ages, but NiMo had a strong line on how local authority control of schools doesn’t lead to democratic accountability, pointing out that local elections are rarely decided on education issues.

She has also had an intriguing riff on how a school-led system doesn’t mean “competing in a Wild West”, but “government providing the scaffolding that helps good schools turn around weak ones” – signals of more active government engagement in the future?

As the conference ended, headteachers were muttering that she hadn’t said enough on funding or recruitment.

Given that in the following 48 hours, the government made announcements on both, it was somewhat odd not to have heard some sort of preview.

One to meditate on quietly before sharing our thoughts, perhaps.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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