From Go-Go to Slo-Mo – a tale of two Education Secretaries

Janet Downs's picture


Once upon a time schools complained of ‘whiplash’ when working under Michael Gove, wrote Laura McInerney in her School Weeks’ editorial (15 January 2016, not available on line).  Today, however, the Department for Education (DfE) ‘seems catatonic’.

Under Gove’s regime, reforms crashed on schools in a succession of missiles.  Exams, testing, league tables, curriculum, school structure, school funding, teaching training – all were thrown in the air and rejigged according to Gove’s prejudices.  Those who warned reforms were too hasty, untested or just plain wrong were dismissed as ‘enemies of promise’.

But under Nicky Morgan, the relentless forward movement has stalled.  This should bring welcome relief for schools punch-drunk with initiatives.   But that’s not the case when everything, including the desirable, also stops.  McInerney lists essential delayed information: ‘information about the new key stage tests, GCSE specifications, solutions for tackling workload, unpublished reports’.

Perhaps it was inevitable.  Gove was manic, imposing initiative after initiative on schools but logistics were introduced, if at all, as an afterthought.   He was hell-bent on reducing the effectiveness of local authorities – then realised there needed to be a regulatory tier between the DfE and schools.    The belated answer was to appoint Regional Schools Commissioner whose job is still ill-defined and risks clashing with Ofsted.   He cut funding for Building Future Schools but the replacement Priority School Building programme has only rebuilt 60.  200 are still waiting for their promised new premises.  He wanted GCSEs to be more ‘rigorous’.  Ofqual warned the timetable for implementation was too tight – but Gove ploughed ahead.   He said 400 ICT master teachers would be trained by April 2015.  But the deadline’s been extended and an extra million over the initial funding of £2m has been awarded.

If the DfE were The Magic Roundabout, Gove would be Zebedee but Morgan would be Brian the snail.  Yet it’s her job to pick up the pieces.  

Sometimes, however, the slow pace might be deliberate.  For example, the DfE wouldn’t confirm whether it had the application for the proposed ‘satellite’ grammar school in Kent.   This meant campaigners challenging the plan were unable to meet the deadline for requesting a judicial review.  As Schools Week said, ‘How convenient for the government’.

Unfortunately there are areas where Morgan moves forward regardless:  her imposition of the Times Table Test, for example.  It may test factual recall but it doesn’t test understanding.  But Morgan was forced to fulfil her pre-election ‘stupid promise’ because the Tories actually won the election – a hung Parliament would have released her from this vow.

Worse, Morgan presses on with academization.  The Education and Adoption Bill will make it easier to force schools to become academies by removing the right to object to academy plans and by introducing another ‘failing’ category – ‘coasting’.  The Prime Minister wants all schools to be academies by 2020.  This is despite mounting evidence that academy conversion is not the best way to improve schools.





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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/01/2016 - 08:39

UPDATE:  Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee, told the BBC that Regional Schools Commissioners were 'a product of the Department's "acting first, thinking later" approach when it comes to beg changes in the schools landscape'.  He was speaking just before the Committee's report into Regional Schools Commssioners was published today, 20 January 2016.

This appears to confirm what I said above - the DfE imposed policies without thinking first.


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