Is Nicky’s Knack To Put Teachers First?

The Education Secretary should prioritise good teaching in order to consolidate Michael Gove's reforms

Prior to his removal as Education Secretary in July 2014, Michael Gove took to teasing his more obdurate opponents by prefacing meetings with the statement, “Now that I am approaching my halfway point as Education Secretary . . .” Now Gove has a new and equally arduous task as Justice Secretary in the new parliament. Instead, it falls to the significantly more emollient figure of Nicky Morgan to bed in the last five years of education reforms.

Since 2010, we have seen a genuine revolution in state education. Gove took the nascent Labour reform of City Academies, which produced 204 state schools independent of local authority control, and rolled it out nationwide. Five years later, 60 per cent of all English secondary schools and 14 per cent of primary schools are academies — around 4,500 in total. Combined with cuts to their budgets, academisation is sounding the final death knell of local authorities’ control of schools. A journey towards a public sector market of autonomous schools and chains of schools is well under way.

When it comes to teacher training, the coalition reforms have promoted school-based teacher training to challenge the previous dominance of university education departments. Last year, more than a third of new teachers trained through either Teach First or Schools Direct. As such, two of the big beasts of the education establishment, university-based educationists and local authority employees, are on the wane. Schools today have unprecedented freedom to train their own staff; pay them as they see fit; design their own curricula and assessment systems; take over neighbouring schools; and establish new schools from scratch. Such liberalising reforms will be sustained with a momentum of their own, as schools embrace their new freedoms to innovate, collaborate and expand. From this perspective, it could be argued that Gove’s reforms are only just beginning.

A less pugnacious and single-minded figure than Gove could never have achieved such radical change in such a short space of time. However, as is so often the case, his attributes may also have been his undoing. Even some of Gove’s strongest supporters concede that he did not carry enough of the teaching profession with him in support of his reforms.

Among my colleagues who are outspoken Gove loathers, one article which he wrote two years ago for the Daily Mail is repeatedly cited as justification. In it Gove branded opponents to his reforms “enemies of promise”, and never really heard the end of it.

It is safe to say no such bellicose rhetoric will be coming from Nicky Morgan. The best-case scenario is that she will continue the spirit of Gove’s reforms, but allow for some healing to occur between the profession and the government. Before the election, Morgan made much of her concern for teacher workload — a well-judged campaign to indicate to the profession that she is on their side.

The worst-case scenario would be that Morgan presides over a rerun of the last three years of John Major’s government. After a period of energetic education reform during the early 1990s, Gillian Shephard, a former teacher, was made Education Secretary with a similar mission to heal wounds. Education as a political issue was kicked into the long grass, reform went cold, and schools experienced three years of benign neglect from Westminster. In 1997 Major ran for re-election on the rather desperate promise of “a grammar school in every town”. 

I am confident such deceleration will not happen this time. Morgan should be aided by the fact that, though Gove may be gone, many of his appointees remain. At Ofqual, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, and the Department for Education, kindred spirits in the crusade for higher standards and school autonomy have stayed firmly in place.

Far from devising new reforms, Morgan’s most significant mission will be to protect Gove’s reforms from the vested interests within the education establishment. In particular, qualifications reform is still in its infancy and must not be derailed. New maths and English GCSEs will be taught for the first time from September 2015, with other core academic subjects (history, geography, science and languages) following in 2016. They will only be examined for the first time in 2018. Morgan will have to stand firm to ensure that there is no backsliding from the exam boards away from the high academic standards set by the previous government.

One of the few untrodden roads of education reform which Morgan should hurry towards is reining in the schools inspectorate Ofsted. Perhaps the most powerful single organisation in the education system, Ofsted is disliked by many different people for many different reasons. For the unions, it is a punitive imposition which leads to increased teacher workload and stress. For teachers of a more “traditional” bent, Ofsted is the enforcer of “trendy” teaching methods and innumerable other education fads.

Among free school heads, there is a strong feeling that their purported “freedom” is constrained by the constant threat of being given a poor grading by visiting inspectors. As numerous studies have shown, the inspection process favoured by Ofsted, particularly the use of lesson observations and a 1-4 grading of different aspects of the school, is impressionistic and inconsistent.

Change has been promised. In a July 2014 letter to schools, Ofsted’s chief Sir Michael Wilshaw explained plans for “fundamental changes” to take effect from September 2015. One of Morgan’s first tasks will be to ensure that these reforms convincingly halt the Ofsted leviathan in its tracks. A smaller, streamlined inspectorate would please everyone from right-leaning think-tanks to teaching unions, and be an easy first win for the new Education Secretary.

Gove’s unpopularity within the teaching profession owed far more to presentation than to policy. With my classroom colleagues I could talk through his reforms and find agreement on a point-by- point basis, but still not dent his position as a source of abhorrence. This was often for pretty inchoate and unjustified reasons: he hated teachers; he wanted to privatise state schools; he wanted to foist on schools a jingoistic version of British history. None of these slurs was true.

Nicky Morgan must now persuade schools and teachers that the Conservative party need not be their implacable enemy. Greater freedom for schools, a much-reduced level of centralised direction, and more robust examinations are things many teachers should naturally support. Gove was the best minister for realising these reforms, but Morgan is perhaps the best candidate for convincing teachers of their merits. 

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