Opinion: There have been eight education secretaries in my nine years at Stratford School
By Neil Wallace, headteacher, Stratford-upon-Avon School
THE last few weeks of the summer term have been set against the backdrop of political theatre and intrigue surrounding the musical chairs in Downing Street and the corridors of power. It is astonishing that my nine years serving as headteacher at Stratford-upon-Avon School have seen eight different secretaries of state for education. Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening, Damian Hinds, Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan and now James Cleverly have all fleetingly held the reins whilst I have been in post at Alcester Road. Is it any wonder that there has been a lack of genuine leadership and continuity for schools and colleges throughout the land?
Imagine what parents and the local community would think of a school if it had eight different headteachers in nine years? This political revolving door is a damning indictment of our system of government and serves only to highlight the lack of joined up thinking in political circles. Alas, the thinking underpinning the rapidly formulated ‘plans’ of the wannabe prime ministers has seemingly yet to extend to education. It is equally unclear what Labour or the Liberal Democrats think ought to be the future direction of travel.
After 1945 there was no desire to return to the ways of the 1930s, so why not seek to create a new educational age instead of seeking to return to the schooling world that existed before Covid?
In some respects, education and politics are seemingly inseparable. Education is potentially a political vote winner, summed up by Tony Blair’s memorable focus on ‘Education, Education, Education’ in 1997. However, it hasn’t featured very highly on the electoral agenda since. This is no doubt a factor behind the transient nature of the secretary of state for education post.
In their recent book About Our Schools, Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters provide a compelling narrative of education from 1976 to the present day. Having interviewed 14 secretaries of state and many other leading figures in education, they conclude that Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett, Ed Balls and Michael Gove were the only ministers prepared in advance for the job and, perhaps not surprisingly, the only ones to have a meaningful impact on the sector.
My career has been characterised by central government effectively asking ‘what can we do to our school system?’ This centralisation of power started with Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act of 1988, culminating in Nadhim Zahawi’s current Schools Bill which is working its way through parliament.
More of the same will just get us more of the same. Coming out of the pandemic is an opportunity for politicians of all persuasions to think creatively, listen to advice and ideas in order to formulate a compelling vision of the future of education. There are many organisations putting forward visions of what things could be like including The Times Education Commission, Rethinking Assessment and the Association of School and College Leaders. We need a fresh vision to outline steps towards a brighter future. Let’s hope that the next few years see a change in emphasis with politicians asking ‘what can we do alongside our school system?’
However, now it’s time to relax, reflect, then get ready to go again. Whilst some people may joke that the two best things about teaching are July and August, it is hard for those not connected with the profession to understand just how tiring the relentless nature of the job is. We’re all looking forward to recharging our batteries so that we can return ‘fired up and ready to go’, perhaps just in time to find out who our next prime minister, and potentially my ninth secretary of state for education might be!