There are two sorts of politician. There are those who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they are doing that they think that everyone essentially agrees with them, and enthusiastically build a large coalition to get things done. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not against me is for me. And there are politicians who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they believe that they will fight anyone and everyone who disagrees, however insignificantly. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not for me is against me.
Michael Gove was passionate about education, and looked for enemies who did not share his fundamental beliefs. Over four years, he took on major policy area after major policy area: school governance, school accountability, teacher education and development, curriculum, assessment, school funding, and so on and so on. The complaint of headteacher unions was frequently that he should slow the pace, introduce no more change, allow things to bed down. But this was to miss the point: for Michael Gove, energetic and rapid change was the essence of what he wanted to achieve, and a diminishing band of enthusiastic supporters egged him on.
My guess is that the instruction from the Prime Minister to Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove’s successor, is indeed to calm things down. One in ten female voters – a key demographic for the Conservative party – work in education. News stories of confusion and demoralisation play badly for any workforce and the stakes are too high. So the premium over the next year will be not on policy change but on messaging – on seeking to manage and administer a radically changed education system.
One of the great ironies of Michael Gove’s time as secretary of state is that over substantial tranches of policy he introduced changes for which there was, or could have been, professional support: most teachers have been trained to teach reasonably traditional school subjects; most teachers want to work in classrooms where their own classroom management is unquestioned; most teachers want to take responsibility for innovation and development. But a secretary of state who slimmed down the national curriculum to a more tightly defined academic core, who placed the EBacc at the core of the accountability system, who strengthened guidance on behaviour management and who believed in school autonomy ends as perhaps the most unpopular and derided secretary of state in modern times. Research on system reform is explicit: ultimately, school systems can only be improved by consent, by engaging and supporting teachers in change.
So the key tasks for Nicky Morgan are clear: first, to take the heat out of contentious policy implementation by building bridges to the profession. Of course, Michael Gove was always lavish in his praise of successful school leaders. But the suspicion was always there that these successful school leaders were being singled out because he believed they were the exceptions, not because they were typical of the majority. Ultimately, any chief executive has to believe in the workforce and its capacity to deliver. Nicky Morgan needs to look for allies, not enemies.
Secondly, she will need to use the resources of the Department for Education quietly and inconspicuously to defuse some of the policy confusions that have arisen as (to mix a metaphor) the tectonic plates of education have been tossed into the air. The accountability of free schools; the relationships between academies and local authorities (who retain over two hundred statutory powers in respect of education); the tenuous hold the DfE now has on teacher supply; the difficulties about school place planning in a world where free-school ‘demand’ has replaced local authority supply planning; uncertainties about teaching as a profession given the deregulatory approach of the last four years.
Thirdly, she needs to look outward. The Gove rhetoric was of a failing school system with some bright lights; the OFSTED evidence is of a largely effective school system, in which the great majority of schools are at least good. The big challenges are about the capacity of schools to grapple with huge changes: the long-term impact of technology on education; the role of schools in community and social cohesion; the role of the school in an increasingly unequal society; the challenge of securing both high levels of excellence and high equity; the role of education as a preparation for work at a time of phenomenal change in labour markets; the continuing challenge of literacy and numeracy amongst the lowest attaining 20 per cent of young people.
These challenges are not confined to England – they face education systems across the world. Some are doing better and more effectively in respect of some of the challenges, but none – as any academic or policy researcher will confirm – are meeting all of them. Almost all of those involved in education think about them, and there are creative contributions from dissenting voices – they can all be listened to.
Nicky Morgan has two huge advantages. The first is that almost whatever the secretary of state does, children arrive at school and teachers teach them: the system goes on working irrespective of government changes. This means that her own interventions can be judicious and thoughtful rather than impulsive. The second is that, curiously enough for someone starting a new job, she has arrived just as most of the workers and clients disappear for their summer break, so she has time to read, talk and think before the new school year.
But then she faces an enormous challenge, because from the first day back in September – everyone will be watching.