A message to the secretary of state…


A week after the election, Stephen Tierney offers his reflections, considers what is ahead, and gives returning education secretary Nicky Morgan some ‘quick wins’


Being totally honest, I have not been sat by my phone waiting for a call – nor do I think Nicky Morgan has been scrambling around desperately trying to find my number for a quick chat and some advice.

I had actually imagined, like most people, that this week we would still be in the complex throes of forming a new coalition government.

Shades of 1992 & 1997

My rather shallow analysis of the election is that Labour went left, the Tories went right, and the Liberal Democrats went, well, nowhere. 

The centre ground, occupied by legions of undecided voters, was unoccupied and uncertain voters were left with no obvious party to go to. An unwillingness or inability of Labour to address fears around effectively managing the economy, no meta-narrative for what the country should be and an increasingly “pumped up” David Cameron, playing to the strong Tory suit of the economy, brought the Conservative Party safely home with a little help from UKIP. It had shades of 1992 all over it.

We have lived through difficult educational times before and survived them. I’ve no doubt we will again. The last time there was a majority Conservative government, I ended up supporting the children’s primary school by marching up and down the main street, with one in the buggy and one holding onto each handle, chanting about cuts to school budgets. You can only do so much with not enough. 

Then came the 1997 election – all political parties should take note.

Some quick wins

In a recent article on my blog, I proposed 10 “quick wins” for the returning secretary of state and invited readers to vote on them. The results make for an interesting snapshot:

  • Keep the grading system the same for all GCSEs (135 votes).

  • Automatically identify children eligible for Pupil Premium funding (135).

  • Ditch performance-related pay (128).

  • Short inspections for all (125).

  • Complaints about Ofsted investigated by an independent panel of school leaders (107).

  • Cancel university tuition fees for any graduate who stays in teaching (90).

  • Scrap the year 1 phonics screening check (88).

  • Delay A level changes until 2017 and 2018 (85).

  • Quadruple funds for a child with an Education, Health and Care Plan (84).

  • Scrap the EBacc as a performance measure (76).

However, in devising this set of quick wins, I hadn’t accounted for the possibility of a single-party majority in the House of Commons. As such, with many of the issues listed above being closely linked to policies of the previous Conservative-led coalition, it is easy to think that none of them will be given the consideration they deserve.

A new relationship

However, as a new leader or secretary of state for education, you sometimes need a few quick wins to gather people and momentum around a new way of working. 

And I believe Nicky Morgan could implement all the above without essentially changing direction. It would be a very powerful statement to the profession about a different relationship, a different way of working together.

Continuing a negative blaming narrative, centrally imposing unpopular policies and seeking constant change by diktat has been the education politics of the last few decades.

It would be refreshing to work with a secretary of state who sought to build a positive relationship with the profession, removed far more than she tried to implement, and blended a trusting, challenging and supportive narrative and way of working. It would be a most radical departure from the status quo. Equally, she may not want to be remembered as the secretary of state for education who merely implemented someone else’s ideas.

Sacking primary school headteachers whose pupils can’t recite their timestables, retesting children in year 7, and making the EBacc compulsory are part of election rhetoric.

But where are we going to find a whole load of new primary headteachers and English, maths, science, history, geography and languages teachers? What are the mechanics of retesting and what to do if the children still don’t pass? These are trifling incidentals in the heat of an election battle.

The Conservative Party won a majority even they hadn’t dared dream of and we are left with a rather incoherent set of ideas; the Tories weren’t alone in presenting a series of bullet points for education that didn’t really add up to very much. 

We need a new vision and way of working if we are to avoid the perfect storm that  the SSAT’s Vision 2040 document predicts over the next five years.

Looking ahead

I am already looking forward to the 2020 election, as the next five years will be fascinating. Can the Liberal Democrats rebuild trust with a very sceptical electorate? 

Can the Labour Party leave the Blair/Brown days behind them, yet learn the lessons of their 1997 election success? Going left strengthens their core vote but winning an election requires them to sit firmly on centre left ground. 

They also need to select a leader that the country can envision as a future prime minister.

And can the Conservative Party produce a more compassionate approach alongside their aspirational tendencies that will speak to the centre ground? Part of this is understanding that public services are different from the private sector and a different approach is required to work with us. At the same time, this new government has massive constitutional issues around the Union and Europe to resolve (and a small majority in Parliamentary terms with which to do it).

We live in interesting times which chime with 1992 to 1997.

Vision, trust, inclusivity

A sense of purpose and trust, self-determination and service, inclusivity and responsibility, compassion and aspiration are not mutually exclusive. These must be the basis of our education system and any political system that wants longevity and public support.

Before all this, we are left with the legacy of implementing incoherent curriculum and assessment reforms that will drive teachers insane, cutting (in our case) about £1 million from our budget over the next five years, and managing a teacher supply shortage which may soon reach epidemic proportions.

However, these are shadows of what may be – not necessarily what will be. I remain one of life’s eternal optimists.

  • Stephen Tierney is the executive director of the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust. He is also as member of the @HeadsRoundTable Core Group and chair of SSAT Redesigning Schools Vision 2040 Group. This is an edited version of a blog that first appeared on his website, http://leadinglearner.me/. You can also find him on Twitter @LeadingLearner


Photo: iStock


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