The contradictions of our politicians

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Ministers will always listen to teachers, says Dr Bernard Trafford, just as long as it’s something they want to hear

It’s always good to find that education ministers are in tune with the profession. Last week schools minister Nick Gibb admitted that there is a looming problem with regard to teacher recruitment and retention: he promised the government is tackling it.

Interestingly, government has hitherto denied there’s a problem. Credit, then, to Mr Gibb who has identified a mismatch between the figures he is given and what teachers are telling him: “In devising policy, I’m assuming what I’m hearing from (teachers) is true, and the statistics somehow – albeit true – are not telling us the whole story.”

Is he really listening to teachers? That’s cheering. More encouraging, perhaps, than my discovery, in a profile of the minister a fortnight ago, that he has a map on his office wall charting every area where schools or authorities are not up to scratch on the phonics tests he so loves. Up a ladder, down a snake: that’s education politics, folks!

In the same week, education secretary Nicky Morgan came in for praise from the former headteacher of Wellington College, Sir Anthony Seldon: “Nicky Morgan is the first secretary of state to fully appreciate that schools can excel at academic rigour and at teaching character,” he said.

That sounds good, although I’m in two minds as to whether the Department for Education’s announcement that government is “investing £5 million in character education to help pupils develop the grit and resilience they need to succeed in school and later life” is good news or the kind of quick fix that school leaders dread heading their way – because they know there is no such thing.

Last month, Ms Morgan wrote an article in Leader, the magazine of the Association of School and College Leaders. She wrote: “I want leaders to have the space to focus on leading and teachers to focus on teaching, free from unnecessary bureaucracy, so that we can do more to spread excellence and ensure that more children can succeed.”

I know what you’re thinking: now I’m going to quote something that contradicts that bold proposal to allow schools to teach as they see best. You’re right: I am. It comes from her very next sentence: “To this end, we have introduced a number of important new measures, starting with the Education and Adoption Bill. This aims to tackle underperformance by identifying and improving coasting schools...”

This is how it always goes: so many fine statements, so many pledges of listening to the profession; promises to support and value teachers, visions of developing a world-class system – whatever the buzzword is this week. These are followed immediately by further mechanisms whereby the accountability straitjacket is laced around schools, teachers and their leaders: the straps tightened, the buckles fastened until they cannot breathe.

The suggestion I made in my last column – that we have less formal assessment and trust teachers more – gained some traction in the Twittersphere. But no-one with any connection to the drafting of policy has got in touch. Don’t worry: I wasn’t expecting them to. That’s the point. Government, ministers and DfE mandarins will always listen – when what you’re saying accords with what they want to hear.

SecEd editor Pete Henshaw described last week how Mr Gibb read Ed Hirsch’s book, The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them in 2005. His policies have followed Hirsch unremittingly ever since, to the exclusion of alternative suggestions or approaches.

Remember, the only evidence of any interest whatever to those who govern us is that which fits in with their proposed policy. Anything else is irrelevant. Properly researched evidence-based policy is, well, just too awkward, too time-consuming and, frankly, too inconvenient.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him on Twitter @bernardtrafford


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