Educational Excellence Everywhere, But Not Inside Nicky Morgan’s Head

There is so much that is platitudinous in the government’s latest white paper on education – the DfE document Educational Excellence Everywhere – not least in the childishly obvious pilfering from Labour’s Education Education Education with its own title’s alliterative three Es.

This document was lauded by Nicky Morgan on last night’s BBC Question Time in which she appeared embarrassingly out of her depth, and it is this demonstrative personal struggle that fuels the essence of this critique. Morgan does have an inherent appearance of the shocked animal caught in car headlights, and I have avoided in other postings about her the easy mockery of this look by using readily available images, but last night her continual wide-eyed stares of confusion suggested a much more serious lack of political nous and insight. Especially when it comes to educational matters.

Before addressing the white paper, one of the more pointed questions that Morgan could not answer was by Chair David Dimbleby on the compulsory academisation of all state schools announced in Wednesday’s budget and outlined in the white paper. He asked why successful local authority schools who do not want to become academies should be compelled to do so. Morgan, having just voiced the well-sounding but suspect mantra that she wanted schools to be run by teachers and not the government, was completely unable to see the irony Dimbleby was presenting and could only repeat her already wilting refrain. The mind boggles. As did Morgan’s continual look.

To explore the immediate above a little further, you can read an excellent articulation of one Headteacher’s rejection of being compelled to become an academy here. Geoff Barton writes convincingly about the nonsense of subjecting his highly successful local authority school to such a compulsory ideological and fundamental change.

The white paper begins naturally enough with an introduction by Morgan as Secretary of State for Education – well, clearly not written by her – in which ‘she’ makes understandable if cheap party-political points about having to right the wrongs of the previous government [we inherited an education system….] and then summarising the apparent successes of that rectification, in general terms. Very general.

In challenging the empty rhetoric of much of the sales pitch in the early parts of the document, I am bound to pick out the most contentious points. One of the first in Chapter 1, 1.4, is the statement Exam grade inflation was rife. Selective ‘evidence’ of this is provided in Chapter 6.16 with reference to Mathematics and Chemistry, and no counter – which does exist – to the tangential [and no more than this] reference to international comparisons, so this does not constitute ‘rife’ to my thinking nor does it equate to any national focus on such over recent years. And I pick on this, very early in the document, as it is a massive claim, this being the ultimate assessment gauge of 11-16 compulsory state school education. This is one of a number of such tenuous claims used to underpin the move to compulsory academisation.

That national academisation of all state schools is introduced and explained obliquely if rousingly in 1.15, somewhat in the mode of the Independence Day film appropriation of Shakespeare’s Henry V Agincourt speech to his troops:

We believe that the fastest and most sustainable way for schools to improve is for government to trust this country’s most effective education leaders, giving them freedom and power, and holding them to account for unapologetically high standards for every child, measured rigorously and fairly. This system will respond to performance, extending the reach of the most successful leaders and acting promptly to reduce the influence of those who aren’t delivering for our children. But it will also do more to set up these leaders for success, ensuring they have the necessary tools to seize the opportunities provided by greater autonomy and ensuring that for as long as it is required, support is available for them to draw on when they choose. This model underpins every one of the reforms set out in this white paper.

Henry was of course using his rhetoric to rouse against the odds, and this paper too emboldens the weakest points of the argument with the sound of certainties, like by greater autonomy which we know is a smokescreen [see here the limits of that autonomy for primary schools – much rightly so – where national testing looms large as a battalion]. It is yet again difficult to anchor to a reality that assertion for government to trust this country’s most effective education leaders and one wonders who exactly these are. Does this mean Headteachers? Does this mean all good classroom teachers [and I use the word ‘good’ quite differently to an Ofsted appellation]? The point is, from the 90s onwards, the Tories, then Labour, the coalition and now the Tories once more have consistently not left the job of education to educators – at classroom level and at subject development level and certainly at assessment levels – and thus the claim now is bound to be classical empty rhetoric. And this is what galls about so much of this document’s preamble – the bloated rhetorical sweep of its statements.

I am only on the first chapter of eight so am worried about too much focus on these errant observations in the document, but this early mission statement needs further unpicking. As the ideological fluff continues to be wafted – as well-meaning as it could be, but can’t be on the evidence – in 1.17 we have:

We believe that outcomes matter more than methods, and that there is rarely one, standardised solution that will work in every classroom for government to impose.

The compulsory National Curriculum Tests at Key Stages 1 and 2 would seem to immediately refute this claim with, for example, the recent debacle on imposed guidance about how exclamation marks should be taught and assessed at Key Stage 2 for English exemplifying this, as I have already explored here.

1.18 through to 1.30 contains more of this rhetorical slight-of-hand, its platitude peaks sustained at an alarming height as the repetitive gist is that the government want the best education for all students. It really is this simplistically correct in aspiration and yet laboriously ideological, and erroneous, about academy autonomy to achieve this.

At 1.32 we read yet another inanity dressed as initiative in the sub-heading Great teachers – everywhere they’re needed. This really is too detailed to unpick, not that anyone would challenge the premise of needing good teachers to deliver good education. However, against the recent widespread and apolitical concerns expressed about falling teacher recruitment and rising pupil numbers, the document here claims that all is in order in this respect: no evidence provided to support the claim.

At 1.36 d Accrediting new teachers, we read yet another deeply dubious statement about the current ‘Qualified Teacher Status’ being replaced with a stronger more challenging accreditation based on teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, as judged by great schools and yet apart from the perhaps contentious adjective ‘great’ [what does that really mean/imply?], this would appear to be exactly the status quo: a teacher’s induction [formerly probationary] year is currently monitored and ultimately judged by subject leaders, senior leadership members and the Headteacher. Indeed, my experience – going back some time, I accept – of having a local authority to support such a long-standing qualifying process with regional probationary teacher meetings and courses would seem precisely the kind of professional model we want to promote.

Backtracking to 1.36 Recruitment, as was picked up on last night’s Question Time by Labour’s Emily Thornberry, the following apparent initiative is risible as a serious attempt to deal with a nationally chronic problem of teacher recruitment where schools cannot attract teachers to fill key posts:

To reduce the costs of recruitment for schools in a more challenging labour market, we will create simple web tools that enable schools to advertise vacancies for free and a new national teacher vacancy website so that aspiring and current teachers can find posts

Schools are quite able to advertise. The teachers they require are not available.

The next section Great leaders running our schools and at the heart of our system is in some respects less problematic, but in others, is more so! Like the claim to need good teachers, this similar requisite of leaders is no less a given [though we could explore the differences between good and great, and the nuance, or not, of attaching the adjective to one and not the other]. In a 30 year teaching career, I have worked with many great leaders and many who were neither of those two terms, and not even good. The point here is that in my experience, leaders led by example – a rather old-fashioned notion – and they should first and foremost be good teachers, able to do the fundamental job. If they cannot, no amount of leadership/management training and qualifications will allow them to ‘lead’. And the notion that multi-academy trusts – MATs [these really should have been deigned ‘multi-academy divisions’….] – will deliver great leadership is yet another absurd leap to defining legislating for that compulsory status made in this document.

I am able to make the claim immediate above – which can of course be challenged – because I have read ahead and therefore the entire white paper. It is without question a massive, comprehensive document, and the headings I have alluded to briefly here from chapter 1 get, along with all the others introduced, detailed outlining, as does Initial Teacher Training to acknowledge because it would appear to be absent from what I have summarised so far. But that detail, that comprehensive delineation, continues in the same platitudinous swathe of sweeping statements, assertions and apparent solutions, a monolith of rhetorical artistry which is ‘correct’ enough in ambition – to provide good education for students – and yet ideologically suspect in its intention to legislate for and achieve. In my opinion.

I have a fundamental objection to that ideological slant which is obvious from my critique so far. To return, however, to where this brief summary began: it is in seeing the current Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, struggling so embarrassingly and yet assiduously with this cause that undermines it so much for me. Where her predecessor Gove was a strident zealot and clearly in control of his own myopic agenda, Morgan is the mere mouthpiece for a colossal ideological structure she doesn’t seem capable of understanding. With her ‘management’ of this colossal managerial construct so inept, it is impossible to support.

And, of course, it is wrong.

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