How long will it take for the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education to understand the nature of the tasks facing her? Justine Greening has not yet been in post for three weeks but she should by now have some understanding of the general lie of the land.
Formidable challenges confront her, including:
- serious underachievement by many pupils, especially the white working class, on international and historical comparisons
- a demoralised and, in many cases, an inadequately trained teaching profession that is struggling to recruit a sufficient number of new members
- a rising school population that is placing added pressure on school places
- inadequacies in the quality of pre-school provision both in terms of state nursery ‘education’ and in support for stay-at-home mums or dads
- dissent over the role of local authorities, academies and free schools
- a revised National Curriculum and more rigorous public exams that are stretching teacher subject knowledge to breaking point
- resistance by many teachers and some parents to SATs tests at ages 7 and 14
- inadequacies in the amount of provision and the quality of vocational training both at school and post-18 as an alternative to academic study
- university funding
- the relative underperformance of boys
- a growing concern about pupils’ mental health, growing addiction to digital technology and the reduction of physical activity
- the demise of the ‘arts’, Britain’s multi-billion pound success story, in many state schools.
The list of challenges goes on and on and on.
Sometimes these challenges can descend into farce as when we learn that many parents are struggling to get their children out of school rather than into school. They feel entitled to ‘term time’ holidays with their kids. In some ways, it is difficult not to be sympathetic. If a child is at school where he/she learns little, it matters hardly at all whether the child is in the classroom or on the beach in Majorca. Either way, they are not being educated.
What will Justine Greening make of it all? How is she going to pilot a way forward? The easy option is to placate the educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, through the traditional policy of appeasement. It buys time, brings peace and allows a politician to move on to a position with more perks. The cost, though, is high in terms of the betrayal of young people.
I first entered the education debate when Sir Keith Joseph was Education Secretary. He was the intellectual heavyweight behind Margaret Thatcher but even he was comprehensively fooled by ‘experts’ from the ‘Blob’ over examination reform. It is he we have to thank for the fiasco of the GCSE exam.
I, nevertheless, admired his willingness to engage in argument and to recognise, later, that he might have got things wrong over GCSE. In 1988, as a peer, he voted in support of an amendment to Ken Baker’s great education reform bill. A colleague, Dr Anthony Freeman, and myself had written the amendment and it was tabled and backed by a group of supportive peers. It would have allowed the banned O-Level exam to be offered as an alternative to GCSE.
Had it passed into law there would have been a public examination for academically able pupils. Sadly, the amendment was defeated. In line with the ‘Blob’ the new Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, had no intention of permitting choice or competition in the examination system. His subsequent reliance on the ‘Blob’ to write the first national curriculum resulted in a fatally weak and flawed document. It has confined us to mid-table mediocrity in terms of educational attainment internationally, well behind the likes of Vietnam, Poland and Estonia.
The education secretaries that followed Baker were largely compliant with the ‘Blob’; consistently distinguished by the white flag of surrender and by inexcusable failures of policy. Michael Gove tried to stem the tide of appeasement before being brushed aside for reasons, it seems, of political expediency.
It is to be hoped that Justine Greening will learn from the experience of her predecessors. If she seeks their monument she should consider that educational landscape she has inherited and understand where appeasement has led.