Why can’t we take politics out of education? It is a frequent refrain, asked by someone at nearly every headteacher conference I have spoken at in the last few years. And it’s understandable. The level of change foisted on schools has been wearisome, but today the waters seem oddly becalmed.
The conference season passed with no eye-catching announcements. Is it really only a year since the education secretary, Justine Greening, who this year hailed her own comprehensive education from the podium, was defending the expansion of grammar schools? Or less than a decade since the free school founder Katharine Birbalsingh shook up Tory delegates with her claim that the education system was “broken”?
The words “free schools” or “grammars” barely crossed any lips in the entire conference season – a reminder of how many pointless initiatives there have been lately. The most arresting news story might even have been the appointment of a new education minister.
In case you missed it, Sir Theodore Agnew, a former Tory donor and academy trust chair, has been fast-tracked to the House of Lords to become under-secretary of state for the school system. He replaces Lord Nash, another former Conservative donor, who chaired an academy trust before spending four years running the school system, of which academy trusts are such an important part.
Agnew has already chaired the Department for Education’s Academies Board, during which time he oversaw the regional schools commissioner Tim Coulson, who in turn oversaw his own academy trust.
That same RSC is now chair of governors at the Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, coincidentally part of Agnew’s trust and notorious for ruling that malingering children should vomit in a bucket and always smile at teachers. There may be no new policies on offer, but those old Goveian revolving doors are still spinning.
Elsewhere, questions of funding aside, these humdrum times do provide respite for schools, still reeling from the introduction of new tests, exams, performance measures and curriculum. But education is political. The government funds public services, and how we educate our children goes to the heart of what sort of society we want to see. Both Greening and her opposite number, Angela Rayner, spoke sincerely about their goal of more equality of opportunity for all young people.
Yet we are so far from achieving it. According to the Education Policy Institute it will be 50 years before we reach an equitable education system where disadvantaged pupils don’t fall behind.
And it is by no means clear where the urgently needed refresh of the market-driven policies of the last 30 years will come from. As one headteacher told me last week: “We’re stuck.”
Rather than taking politics out of education, a solution might be to take education out of the political cycle. There is too much tinkering driven by electioneering or the demands of a 24/7 media.
It would take a bold politician to do it, but what if she or he committed to a cross-party group to look at the evidence and solutions on the most intractable issues, such as white British underachievement, and then implement the findings? It would be a churlish opponent who refused to take part.
The gene pool needs to be widened when it comes to ideas. The ministerial/academy revolving door extends to the policy world, where the same old, often wealthy, pale, male establishment figures with links to chains of schools seem to pop up again and again. The ubiquitous Lord Agnew has been a trustee of two prominent thinktanks.
Where are the professional, parent, even pupil voices – the people who are often experimented on? This month marks the fifth anniversary of the first meeting of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. At the time they constituted a powerful new voice in the education world by harnessing the views of professionals via social media.
When they meet at the Guardian this week, we will be able to hear how much influence they feel they have really had. One of their original ideas was for curriculum and assessment to be taken out of the hands of politicians and handed to an independent body on a 20-year licence.
Politicians rightly want to set the big aspiration goals but would it be such a bad idea if other experts were constitutionally obliged to contribute to the means? Parliament resumes this week but there is no education legislation on the horizon and no big ideas coming down the track. It might be time for something new.