An Open Letter to the new Secretary of State

Dear Nicky Morgan,

Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Education. It’s a pity, perhaps, that the timing of your appointment means that you missed last week’s excellent Education Reform Summit run jointly by the Education Foundation and the DfE. Still, there have been excellent write-ups by great edu-bloggers including Tom Bennett and Tom Sherrington.

I was going to write after a few days’ reflection, directing my remarks at comments made by Michael Gove (quoted in bold). Now he’s gone, and you’re taking up the reins, I hope you might take a fresh view of some of the misconceptions so wilfully articulated that I must take issue with them.

We’re giving schools and teachers more autonomy to be creative… more autonomy for Heads…
That claim is a spectacular piece of self-delusion. To be sure, some financial and curricular straitjackets have been removed for Academies and Free Schools: in the past too many Local Authorities acted as a brake on progress, rather than stimulating innovation. But all recent changes have dragged control increasingly to Westminster: and, all the time, the creation of regional commissioners, academy chains and other mechanisms tighten that control.

We’re making accountability sharper and more intelligent so we can identify… failure earlier… stepping in to rescue those in under-performing schools.

No one can disagree with the concept of identifying failure and stepping in early. It’s more a question of whether the Department or the inspectorate is any good at it.

I know too many hard-working, committed teachers in schools in different settings who have been devastated by hostile and frankly politically-motivated inspections, frequently with a political agenda. So it was interesting to watch yesterday’s Dispatches programme on Channel 4 which showed how craven both Department and inspectorate have been in their reluctance to tangle with tricky cultural/religious issues where schools – here, fundamentalist and Jewish and Muslim schools – have been blatantly breaking the law by preaching religious intolerance.

More dangerous, though, is the arrogant claim above of “making accountability sharper and more intelligent”. Neither Mr Gove nor OFSTED has done anything of the sort. On the contrary, targets, benchmarks, floor-levels and other centrally-decreed measures are far from intelligent and becoming ever-blunter instruments. Ofsted’s sheer power leads schools and teachers to follow formulaic approaches, to conform to what they think the inspectorate wants.

It’s easy, especially at an inspiring event such as last week’s Summit, to criticise, to deplore the lack the courage to do what is right, creative and innovative, what is exciting for teachers and their pupils. But I reckon it must be hard to be either inspired or inspiring when you’re under the cosh from such a hostile inspectorate.

From where have this threat and hostility derived? From Mr Gove. To be sure, when he spoke at the Summit he rattled off his usual list of schools and individual teachers who merit praise for making a difference: but throughout his tenure as Secretary of State there was a clearly defined “enemy” on which he effectively declared war.

That enemy was anyone who didn’t agree with him. Of course we want to eliminate low standards, low expectations, poor performance. Of course we all want to improve and, if you like the word, reform. But those who call for caution: who want a better deal for teachers; who want less control-freakery and threat; they’re not the enemy. They’re just hard working, conscientious professionals (I’d like to count myself among them) who think that the workforce deserves better treatment, more trust, and infinitely more respect.

And people like me believe that, if such trust and respect were accorded to the profession, results would continue to improve, without the feeling of fear and often sheer misery that accompany the current agenda.
And, above all, we’re working to improve teacher quality with policies on recruitment, training, professional development and performance management designed to ensure we have the best teachers possible.
I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I don’t know why both Sir Michael Wilshaw and Michael Gove have felt the need to keep rubbishing the input of Higher Education into ITT. I’ve been a head for 24 years and I have never seen young entrants to the profession coming out of PGCE courses as well equipped as those I’ve been seeing in the last few years.

They are absolutely focused on teaching and learning, and thirsty to improve their own practice all the time. And I find they are already tangling with the issues of behaviour management and classroom organisation. Indeed, in all these respects my colleagues and I welcome these new entrants to the profession coming with so many ideas and with a sheer focus on professionalism that is in some ways a challenge to those of us who have been doing the job a long time. Whence comes this desire to keep HE out of it: is it political?

More recently there has been a rigorous and scientific approach to learning with great teachers and leading academics.
Yes, there has been a more rigorous and scientific approach to learning. Many academics (with, surely, people like Professors Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie leading the field) have done fantastic work on this. No thanks to government, however. What is working so well in the profession at the moment is that teachers themselves, coordinated by middle leaders in schools, are leading the way on sharing best practice. Blogging, tweeting, debating: the Twittersphere is an exciting place to be in education at present.

This was demonstrated at last week’s Summit. We find ourselves in a tremendously exciting phase of teacher-led improvement and innovation, backed by high-quality research.

Reform will come from the “chalk-face” (what’s the modern equivalent of that, I wonder?). I very much hope that you, Mrs Morgan, will encourage that trend and avoid imposing still more centralised change and (notwithstanding protestations to the country) pressure from Ofsted that combine to enforce unimaginative conformity.

Will you instead seek consensus, trust professionals, get round the table with them, listen and plan a future together? If you do, you’ll be amazed by the creative and cooperative energy that you will unlock.

At the Summit, Sir Michael Barber quoted Joel Klein as he tried to map the future. You can mandate adequacy … greatness has to be unleashed.

Will you let it, let all of us off the leash? I hope so.

Good luck.

Bernard Trafford


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