“There is a real problem of ambition in certain traditional communities, like East Durham, which needs to change … when you go into those schools you can smell the sense of defeatism.”
Once again the aggressive language used by the secretary of state for education has sparked controversy, this time as he denigrated the hard work of teachers and school leaders in East Durham in the North East of England.
What made Michael Gove’s comments earlier this month all the more outrageous is that he has, it seems, not been near a school in East Durham for some time.
When pushed by local MPs in the House of Commons as to how he had come to witness this “smell of defeatism”, Mr Gove admitted he had not actually smelt anything.
He had, however, been to North Durham and North West Durham, and they had had plenty to say to him, he told Parliament, about how bad East Durham was. So that’s alright then.
So it transpires that despite making one of the strongest attacks on a group of specific schools that I have ever heard a secretary of state for education make, he didn’t have the decency to check whether his facts matched reality on the ground or to offer these schools a right of reply.
Even more astonishing was that he also defended his stance by quoting Lord Andrew Adonis, who had visited a school in the area and had said afterwards that: “In the past children turned right to work in the shipyards or left to work in the coal mines. Now they might as well walk on into the sea.”
Mr Gove defiantly told the Commons: “That spirit of defeatism reported by the noble Lord is exactly what we need to attack.”
I could be persuaded to agree, if it weren’t for the fact that Lord Adonis’s comment was uttered nigh on 10 years ago – about a school that has long since closed.
What’s more, the replacement school scored a 89 per cent five A* to C pass rate last year and has shown remarkable progress to turn things around.
Even Lord Adonis told the Northern Echo that his comments had been taken quite out of context by Mr Gove. Lord Adonis told the newspaper: “He has taken a quote of mine, from 10 years ago, completely out of context – about a school that has since closed. That is not what I expect an education secretary to do.”
I am not naïve. It is true that East Durham has its challenges. Its schools’ Ofsted ratings are below average and perhaps if every school was failing I could see why Mr Gove had chosen such an aggressive course of action.
However, while half of schools in East Durham find themselves in category 3 or 4, half are doing well, in very tough circumstances. But Mr Gove, it seems, cannot be bothered to emphasise this.
As with any schools and any area, there are successes and there are challenges, there are ups and there are downs. When will we all acknowledge that sustainable school improvement is not about embarking on a witch-hunt every time a school faces tough times?
It is about identifying these challenges and encouraging collaboration between local institutions in order to tackle them. Yes, some East Durham schools have problems – so let’s work constructively to solve them, rather than swan around London gatherings disparaging the work of dedicated professionals without even visiting them to see for yourself.
Ministers must realise that what we need to aspire to is a system whereby local families of schools can support one another when one of their own faces those crises which do happen from time to time. We cannot resort to unintelligent, “must try harder” attacks, our education system has to operate on a deeper level.
Ultimately this was cheap, rude, insulting and shameful and has denigrated the hard work of every teacher and school leader in East Durham, many of whom will be doing outstanding things to change lives.