Inconsistencies at DfE: who is really in charge?

Janet Downs's picture

Education Secretary Justine Greening wants a skills revolution.  But schools minister Nick Gibb loathes skills.    He won’t even let civil servants use the word in Department for Education correspondence, Laura Mcinerney, editor of Schools Week, told a Tory Conference fringe meeting.

In her Schools Week editorial*, she describes how Tory MPs asked why pupils weren’t taking vocational subjects, why arts, music and design & technology were being sidelined, why apprenticeships have a negative image.

The answer, she said, is Nick Gibb.

Gibb is passionate about transmitting knowledge.  And that’s an important part of what schools do.  It’s what Hector, the teacher in The History Boys, described as a precious parcel to be treasured and passed on.

Unfortunately, Gibb’s enthusiasm for knowledge blinds him to the merits of anything outside an academic core. 

Gibb’s boss understands the importance of skills.  For years, employers have been saying how they need school leavers with better work-related skills.  And our economy, particularly post-Brexit, will require more people to acquire them.

Since 2010, Gibb’s view has been in the ascendant.  School accountability measures reward schools who prioritise EBacc subjects and ‘facilitating’ A levels.  Schools which send large numbers of pupils to university are publicly praised.   This sends out a message that apprenticeships are second-tier qualifications for those not clever enough to enter higher education.

This view has been unwittingly reinforced by Robert Halfon, the new chair of the Education Select Committee,  who says schools should lose part of their pupil premium if few of their pupils, especially disadvantaged ones, don’t take up apprenticeships.  This idea implies apprenticeships are mainly a route for the disadvantaged.

It’s not just skills where Gibb and Greening part company.  In 2010, Gibb said he’d rather have teachers with an Oxbridge degree and no qualified teacher status than teachers from ‘rubbish’ universities with a PGCE.   Greening favours non-graduates being able to enter teacher via apprenticeships.  

As Mcinerney points out, whatever your opinion about apprenticeships v university (or a non-graduate route into teaching), ‘It’s straightforwardly the fact that the left hand and the right hand are no longer talking in the education department’.

This raises the question about who is really in charge at the DfEIs Greening just the figurehead while the education ship ploughs on with someone else at the helm?

If she is really serious about promoting skills Greening must change the content of school performance tables.  She must change measures which encourage schools to concentrate solely on a core of academic subjects.  She must remove anything which promotes the view that university is the only valuable route for school leavers. 

As a top priority, Greening must ensure her second-in-command follows the course she plots and doesn’t undermine her vision by rubbishing skills as wishy-washy concepts pushed by ‘progressive’ teachers.  If he won’t do so then perhaps the time has come for Gibb to go.

UPDATE 9 October 2017, 08.52.  Schools Week reports how UK pupils are helping scientists find a vaccine for the human tapeworm.   Professor Becky Parker, director of  the Institute for Research in Schools, said,  'It is a fabulous opportunity for school students to carry out real research, working directly with scientists on a globally important project.'  But this kind of hands-on project comes under the heading 'enquiry-based learning' which is derided by Nick Gibb.  


*'All aboard the "Skills Revolution"! (Even you Mr Gibb)', Schools Week, 6 October 2017, not yet available online


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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 08/10/2017 - 15:07

The deep irony of all this is that Gibb and the philosophy of GERM are actually seeking to reduce deep learning, that involves knowledge, but which is much more, to a 'skill' taught by the behaviourist methods of training.

Academisation is the English implementation of the ‘Global Education Reform Movement‘. It results in the replacement of ‘Headteachers’ by ‘Executive Principals’ and the domination of the ‘behaviourist’ assumptions that flow from the culture of ‘training’ that MATs impose onto their schools. I am not criticising training. I want the people that drive the 125+mph trains that take me to London to be well trained. Such training requires learning the BR drivers’ handbook by heart and lots of practise in simulators.

Janet describes a dichotomy between 'skills' and 'knowledge'. This is false. Vocational competence at all levels requires knowledge. In fact vocational training at all levels requires the memorisation of knowledge far more than the aquisition of manual skills - think electricians and gas fitters. The true catastrophy at the heart of both academic education and vocational training in England is that the DfE doesn't understand much about either.

I am an elected Public Governor at an acute hospital Foundation Trust. At the last Council of Governors meeting we were intoduced to a newly appointed Non-Executive Director, who was formerly a Professor of Medicine at a prestigious academic university. The topic of a discussion was how to train more doctors and nurses to meet the catasprohic staff shortages that constitute the greatest single ongoing risk to patient safety throughout the NHS, which is about to get much worse on account of Brexit.

The 'training ' of doctors involves academic understanding of medical science at the highest level, combined with expert manual skills, but also detailed knowledge of recommended treatments set out and regularly reviewed by NICE. The professor was clear that medical students underwent of process of personal development that was transferable across all aspects of medical 'training'. This development has many dimensions including moral, academic, physical together with other vital skills in respect of teamwork, communications, empathy and courage. The latter involves the confidence to deploy assertiveness (rather than agression or passivity) when faced with the need to challenge the actions of superiors, managers, colleagues or, if necessary, government ministers.

Everbody agreed with this, but then the Chief Nurse spoke up to state that all of that applied equally to nurses and midwives.

Then I argued that it actually applied to everybody employed in the hospital at every level including hospital porters. This too was met with universal agreement and an example was given of a recent incident where a hospital porter noticed 'someting not right', spoke up, and averted major harm.

The two major NHS hospital scandals in England at Mid Staffordshire and Morecambe Bay  involved personal failures at every level in those organisations, as set out in the Francis and Kirkup reports. These personal failures involved far more than issues of skills training or knowledge. All of this has led to enormous advances in the patient safety culture in the English NHS for which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has played an important part.

And this is not just an NHS issue. The nuclear, construction, aviation, rail transport and many other industries have long had this culture except where it has been corrupted by the perverse inentives of marketisation, as in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

So the conclusion is that personal development must be at the core of all vocational training/education and that any distinction between 'skills' and 'knowledge' misses the point.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/10/2017 - 08:44

Roger - I agree that the skills v knowledge argument is a false dichotomy.  I hope my post didn't imply otherwise.  But Gibb and his vocal supporters constantly draw a distinction as if knowledge alone was enough.  It isn't as I pointed out here.    The irony is that when Laura McInerney interviewed Nick Gibb for Schools Week he said his best-remembered day at school was when he made maple syrup but he winced when Laura pointed out that this was a skill.

Unfortunately, Gibb has absorbed opinions which he appears not to have really thought about.  In his speech to early this year to the Education  World Forum he complained that  ‘Teachers are implored to allow pupils to debate and discuss ideas, design and carry out their own scientific experiments and analyse historical source.'  Is Gibb really suggesting pupils should experience none of these things?  If so, he is not fit to be a schools minister.

Nairb1's picture
Sun, 15/10/2017 - 09:52

'Unfortunately, Gibb has absorbed opinions which he appears not to have really thought about. '


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/10/2017 - 08:59

See UPDATE for details of an investigation involving school pupils helping scientists on a globally-important subject.   But it's  'enquiry-based learning' much mocked by Nick Gibb.  How will he react?  Perhaps he'll just ignore it because to welcome it would be to acknowledge the importance of such activities.

Nairb1's picture
Mon, 09/10/2017 - 14:51

He will. Gibb has no truck with evidence, preferring his self-appointed status as education expert to provide him with all the answers.

He's dangerous.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 09/10/2017 - 15:11

Janet and Nairb1 - You are right, he is not fit to be a schools minister and he is indeed a threat to any education system.  That he 'has no truck with evidence' can be seen from his apparent lack of interest in EEF findings, which his government part-financed.

agov's picture
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 13:14

who is really in charge?

Surely it must be she who would rule us all -

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 13:36

If Greening can't ensure her subordinate supports her, then she's not a leader.  Her wishy-washy response to the proposed policy to increase selection shows she hasn't the courage of her convictions.

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