After cutting a fairly lonely figure at a recent teachers’ union conference, Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education, has now gone the full Robinson Crusoe and opted for complete isolation. She is the latest castaway on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. By all accounts her plans for that desert island are characteristically far-reaching.
The marooned Morgan began by telling startled presenter Kirsty Young that she was not at all happy with the island. She had already set a few reforms in motion, aimed primarily at turning around all those coasting little coves with their complacent palm trees going nowhere – each cove controlled by some hopeless, democratically elected local authority. That system surely can’t work, she said. How could the local wildlife possibly share and communicate best practice with each other? It was just a breeding ground for those two well-known tropical diseases – mediocrity and bureaucracy.
Instead, she intended to find a stick. She was going to draw a line in the sand with it. Several lines, in fact. She was eventually going to criss-cross the entire island, carving out a series of randomly drawn chains. Those coves would no longer be allowed to languish by the sea. They would be linked by her chains to other coves, sometimes stretching across the entire island. All coves would be renamed “goves” and would be run by new island trusts – set up by various market-driven entrepreneurs and the occasional pirate. That was bound to work better.
A load of coconuts
What was the evidence to back up her plan, Kirsty asked. Morgan was ready for that. She spoke of how she had already visited a typical failing local-authority area where she had observed a load of coconuts lying around doing nothing at all. Whereas, in one of the exciting new goves, she had seen a community of enthusiastic gulls thriving on the new challenges inherent in being part of a chain.
“Man was born free but is everywhere in chains,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau began in The Social Contract. Few readers of those words have had the vision to realise that this might ever be considered a desirable state of affairs, but Ms Morgan now sees it as a universal objective. But – Kirsty interjected – did the minister genuinely believe in what she was saying? Or had she had all this foisted upon her by her predecessor, or possibly by her chancellor? Was she not perhaps "in chains" herself?
Not a bit of it, Morgan responded. She spoke dreamily of other desert islands in the world where similar reforms had been undertaken. She knew of other islands where groups of disgruntled wildlife parents had been allowed to head off into the wilderness and build their own (admittedly rather perilous-sounding) tree schools. She had also heard of other, mysterious islands in the East, where the young could study for 18 hours a day.
GCSE in nest-building
She was going to take measures to discourage soft island subjects such as hunting, fishing, flying, nest-building, tree-climbing and the like. Those were low-level, low-aspiration subjects. Instead, there was going to be a new Desert Island Ebacc for all the young flora and fauna, featuring English, maths, Classics and one of either history or geography.
When Kirsty gently pointed out that there did not seem to be any educators left on the island to do any of the required teaching of such subjects, the minister told her that this was the kind of negative talk that was going to put teachers off ever coming to the island. In fact, it was apparently all Kirsty’s fault that teachers had left and that the horizon seemed so empty. Instead, Kirsty should join her in building upon these fantastic new foundations, albeit foundations based on sand.
The DfE remix
I am not going to reveal all the minister’s disc selections. Besides, readers might prefer to speculate on those. Suffice to say that the famous old St Winifred’s School Choir’s Grandma, We Love You appears to have undergone a remix at the DfE and is now the St Winifred’s Academy, singing Grammar, We Love You.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire