White Paper: ‘The mantra used to be that parents know best. Now it turns out that it’s the education secretary’

Nicky Morgan's education White Paper, published today, contains one or two interesting ideas but lacks real substance

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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"Where there is no vision, the people perish." So scripture teaches us.

I remembered this phrase back in the new year when I mused on how long it seemed to be taking this education secretary to give us any insight into who she was or what she stood for.

Well, today we got a White Paper on education, published the morning after the night before, adding some details to yesterday’s unwelcome announcement about forced academisation.

So credit where credit’s due. Nicky Morgan has served up some ideas that aren’t a complete rehash from the Michael Gove kitchen. It is nevertheless mostly tepid fare.

So, for example, parents are not likely to be convinced that Ofsted should no longer grade the quality of teaching. Surely, they will say, that’s precisely what inspectors should be doing.

Teachers and school leaders, on the other hand, will welcome this acceptance that grading individual lessons in phoney 20-minute nuggets is often inaccurate, especially when (how shall I put this?) most inspectors aren’t recruited because of their own teaching prowess.

The bigger issue, for me, is that the government feels yet again that it should tinker with Ofsted. Couldn’t they have got it it right last time, or the time before?

Such interventions simply reinforce the sense of a government that is often hapless and an inspectorate that is craven and supine. Like a troublesome boil, let’s leave the damn organisation alone for a while and see if it gets better.

The proposed post-inspection improvement period – a recognition that it takes time to improve a school – is a sensible notion, though let’s hope it’s not merely seen as aperitif time to allow the more voracious academy sharks to swim in tightening circles, deciding which schools to suck up as fry for their expanding institutional portfolios.

We already knew from George Osborne of the "every school an academy" mantra (though it doesn’t quite have the moral import of ‘every school a good school’). So much for democratic decision-making.

At a time when the governors and I should be deciding what’s right for our school and our community, the secretary of state’s ideological obsession with academies may prove as foolhardy as it is risky.

Many of us will resent the arrogance of a government that once talked of professional freedoms, and which routinely feted high-profile headteachers upon its conference stages, and which boasted that decisions about schools belonged to school leaders rather than the Department for Education’s cocooned advisers, harassed underlings and unelected regional schools commissioners.

'Dark threat over academisation'

What, for example, if we say no – that we won’t be part of Club Morgan? How will the dark threat of "direction" to join an existing academy chain then kick in? What will they do? Sack me and install a new governing body? And how’s that going to play out in communities like ours where most parents are more than happy with their child’s school and would probably prefer me not to be spending time, like some spurned fiftysomething, scouring databases to see which Mat we most fancy?

We used to be told that parents knew best when it came to their child’s schooling. Today’s White Paper suggests – with breathtaking arrogance – that the education secretary knows better and that academies trump any other form of school.

There’s a thin collection of other ideas too. The National College for Teaching and Leadership – a once-proud institution that helped many of us to navigate our way from being teachers to school leaders – is apparently to have policy defibrillators applied.

It’s going to do the only thing the education secretary should be focused on – help us to attract more teachers. 

That’s a terrible indictment of recent policy. The gamble of leaving teacher recruitment to the market place failed. It has led to the worst crisis in numbers that most of us veterans can recall.

At the very least, Nicky Morgan and her predecessor owe us an apology. It remains hard for us to know whether the defenestrated National College can now manage to stitch back together the relationships and procedures that might bring coordinated teacher recruitment back to life.

Much of the rest of the White Paper reads as platitudes – improving the quality of training, establishing an educational journal of research, providing parents with some kind of vague one-stop shop.

Nevertheless, there we have it: a new White Paper.

I’ve only skimmed it on a frustratingly delayed train from London back to school. Despite the hint of spring weather, I read the proposals with a feeling I used to have each year on Christmas morning. Spoiler alert: it’s not excitement. No, foolishly and apparently unable to learn a lesson from one year to the next, I’d get towards the end of my Christmas stocking deliberately leaving myself just one last gift to unwrap. Each year – with unfathomable disappointment – I’d realise that the gift that promised so much was merely a tangerine.

It was nice, shiny and orangey, of course. But, in reality, it was just a tangerine.

This White Paper, relatively early in the Conservatives’ term of office, could have promised a lot. It could have set a new and optimistic agenda. It hasn’t. It’s like that sad and wizened tangerine, I’m not sure there’s much there beyond the unwanted pith.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a 14-18 comprehensive school in Suffolk. He tweets as @realgeoffbarton

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