A Critique of Tory Education policy: From the Archives

I have just uncovered the following article I wrote, dated 8 October 2009-  roughly around the time I re-joined the Labour Party. Michael Gove has a lot to answer for!

I listened to Michael Gove’s speech at the Tory Party Conference and I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. 

First he attacks the QCDA for “defeatism, political correctness and the entrenched culture of dumbing down” and then he brandishes them as “out of touch bureaucrats”. 

My mother works for the QCDA – she is Head of 14 – 19 Education. She got to this position after 27 YEARS in the teaching profession – 10 years as Headteacher of a Church of England Secondary Modern School in the Midlands. This gives her decidedly more educational experience than Michael Gove, David Cameron, George Osborne and Chris Whiteside [Tory PPC for Copeland, where I was then living] put together. Even former Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, who was respected for the fact that she had actually worked in Education, was a teacher for “only” 18 years. 

Growing up as the daughter of a Headteacher, I know better than most just how hard they work – and the unrelenting stress they are under. Headline-grabbing pledges to sack failing Heads within 100 days show completely the wrong attitude to some of our country’s most self-giving public servants. Besides, Headteachers whose schools do go into Special Measures usually are sacked – and they usually go quickly. It’s been decades since Heads have been able to rest on their laurels comfortable in the knowledge they’ve reached the peak of their profession. 

Then there is the pledge to exempt “Outstanding Schools” from further OFSTED Inspections. As a school governor of a primary school that has recently been rated “Outstanding” by OFSTED (St. Bridget’s School, Parton) I can’t think of a better way to get schools to rest on their laurels. I would quite like my school to stay outstanding – and exempting them from OFSTED is not the way to go about it. 

Next we have the policy of “allowing” outstanding schools to become academies. Given the strains on the public finances, is ploughing additional resources into the country’s best schools really the most strategic use of resources? This seems more like a rehash of the 1990′s policy of allowing schools to become “grant maintained” – a policy that only further widened the gulf between the country’s best and worst schools. 

Finally we have the policy to bring soldiers into the classroom. Now, I actually think there are issues surrounding young boys growing up without a male role model or father figure – and I think there is some value in the character-building discipline that the army could bring to the classrom. But it’s the branding of our education institutions as somehow “places at war” that I find offensive and unhelpful. Granted, some schools have problems and face all manner of obstacles in providing a satisfactory education for their students. Many schools, however, manage to provide outstanding education against all the odds, though I note that this doesn’t make for good headline material in the Daily Mail. 

You see, here’s the rub: when I was growing up in the 1980′s and 1990′s the Conservative Government berated the teaching profession so regularly it was almost as if they were enemies of the state. Mum and dad were both teachers and they would joke that if anything went wrong in the world “blame the teachers”. 

Berating teachers might make good headlines and it might win votes but it does nothing to sustain staff morale or indeed encourage respect amongst students for teachers. What’s more, it discourages good people from entering the profession. Mum and dad always discouraged me from following in their footsteps because teachers were “over-stressed, over-worked and under-paid”. So I went into the legal profession instead – though to be honest, I would probably have made a better teacher. 

I love being a school governor and church youth worker – and relish the opportunity to inspire children and young people to greatness: this is the heart of good teaching. Yet if a young person does indeed go onto achieve greatness, I would hope that it would be primarily down to the hard work, dedication and commitment of that individual rather than because I happened to say the right encouraging words to them or because their teachers met the appropriate competencies. “Personal responsibility” is actually quite a “conservative” notion but it’s something that has been lost in education policy in recent years. Teachers aren’t the cause of all the world’s ills but then neither are they the cause of all the world’s advances – though they have made a greater impact on the latter than the Daily Mail – or Michael Gove -will ever give them credit for.