Yes, minister: my top five bloopers and blunders from the Department for Education

Stephen Petty, a head of humanities, considers a selection of the most eye-catching - and, some might say, ill-judged - recent remarks from education ministers

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Many student howlers have been shared and enjoyed via TES recently. But let’s give our noble young foot-soldiers a break – at least for the moment. They are, after all, the best part of the job. Let’s celebrate instead some of the hilarious bloopers and blunders overheard recently at educational "high command".

It’s taken some time to whittle them down, but here’s my own Top 5 countdown:

5. Coming in at Number 5 is Sam Gyimah, under-secretary of state, with his “We will again protect the schools budget”. Yes, I know we have heard this howler many times before but I never tire of it. You have to admire the schoolboy error here, deliberate or otherwise. By glossing over the "per pupil" details and the precise whereabouts of the apostrophe in “schools”, the statement may well give the non-educational world the impression that schools are all well-financed and exempt from any austerity measures. It’s almost as if it’s a deliberately misleading ploy. The only alternative is that the minister now feels mortified by his glaring gaffe, for he must know that a typical “school’s budget” is taking an almighty battering?

4. At Number 4 we have Nicky Morgan’s recent, and surely unintended, blooper, when the education secretary claimed that there have been "significant moves to limit changes and give schools more time to prepare for them". Has any teacher out there noticed any more time, any "limit to the changes"? I don’t think I have even seen certain heads of subjects this term, such is their need to hide away and write new GCSE and A-level courses by the end of the year, along with all the other daily requirements of their job today.

3. In at Number 3 is schools’ minister Nick Gibb’s recent line: "There has never been a better time to be a teacher." This was another classic slip-up, with Nick forgetting that if you’re going to borrow that old Harold Macmillan “you’ve never had it so good” line then there really needs to be some grain of truth in what you say. Poor Nick must be kicking himself when he now reflects on his remarks and on the fact that teachers and schools face more workload and pressures than ever before – along with dwindling pay and pensions.

2. Number Two, but nearly taking the top spot is Nicky Morgan’s mantra: “I’m unapologetic about shining a spotlight on complacency.” This was another careless ministerial slip that has had us all rocking and rolling with delight. Nicky (surely by accident) was alluding to so-called “coasting schools”, thereby making her statement (had it been intended) sound exceptionally offensive, inaccurate and ill-timed (bearing in mind  3, 4 and 5 above). What Nicky surely meant to say was that she was going to shine her spotlight on the "complacent" way, for example, in which predecessors in her department had persisted in segregating the educational world into so-called Ebac and non-Ebac GCSEs, and similarly into “facilitating” and “non-facilitating” A-levels. Surely she meant to say that she was going to scrap all such nonsense?

1. The Number 1 howler, though, is Nick Gibb again and his We changed the performance table rules so that only the first entry counts.” Nick must be especially regretting this one. Consider, first, the illogicality of only counting “first entry”.  Did we pass our driving test first time? Did the first person we ever asked agree to kiss us? Should we only be allowed one attempt at everything? Why shouldn’t we give people as many chances as possible to reach the desired standard?

But the reason Nick’s comment made Number 1 here is that he has surely shot himself in the foot, too. With many schools rightly ignoring the league table consequences of first entry failure, this has now made government comparative data on student progress in schools unreliable and made league tables even less meaningful than they were before. (And don’t get me started on how all of this then plunges A-level targets into confusion too). Quite frankly, I gather he's a decent person but Nick fully deserves his place at the top with this.     

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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