Shuffling Forward in Education

This week has been full of surprises in Whitehall. The departure of David Willetts was foreseen. Indeed, it has been predicted just about every time there has been a ministerial reshuffle in the recent past. He will be missed by many who thought he ‘got’ science – and other parts of the university sector too (although perhaps not the financial bits). The much less expected departure of Michael Gove seems to have come as a shock/delight depending on where you sit. That part of the teaching profession he rudely referred to as The Blob will undoubtedly have been cheering in staff rooms up and down the country, but there are some who seemed to believe his reforms really were likely to improve the quality of our education, despite their effect on morale and retention of teachers coupled with the continuing likelihood of teaching to the test remaining a necessary key strategy for schools.

During my recently completed stint as chair of the Royal Society Education Committee I had opportunities to interact with several of the ministers involved in education including Gove, Willetts, Liz Truss (now Minister of State for the Environment, so we can hope her Norfolk constituency has given her a good grounding in badgers, fact and fiction) and the newly reinstated Schools Minister Nick Gibb. These interactions ranged from the surreal to the depressing via the hilarious and the uncomfortable (not all of which I feel able to share!). What did I learn?

Chris Huhne reportedly said Gove was ‘the politest man in the House of Commons’ and certainly during the uncomfortable period when I had to host him before he gave a speech at the Royal Society in 2011, he was superficially perfectly charming. This was a speech whose content was unknown to us and so I had no idea whether I wanted to harangue or congratulate him on what he was about to say. In fact it turned out that what he said that day about science and maths education was entirely positive and consistent with Royal Society views, describing amongst other things the importance of maths for all post-16. During those awkward 20 minutes or so in which I was left to entertain him – he had, to everyone’s consternation, turned up early – we talked more about the portraits displayed in the basement of the Royal Society’s building (a safe topic I felt) than education, nevertheless it was clear how much his own experience taking Scottish Highers thereby enabling him to stick with maths beyond 16, was important to him. This idea of breadth of education post-16 sits at the heart of the recent Royal Society Vision Report, launched last month, which recommends all students to study maths, science and humanities/social sciences up to 18. On that Gove and I would be in agreement.

However, as my previous post on education matters made clear, many of the edicts issued at rapid speed from the DfE under Gove’s leadership seemed to be completely untouched by views from the education establishment and professional bodies. They, including the Royal Society, made repeated attempts to inform policy through their responses to the many consultations issued over the past 2-3 years. Gove and his cohorts (notably his ex-SPAD Dominic Cummings, he of the colourful reputation for bullying  and short fuse) have pressed on with wholesale changes to education regardless. Gove believed his own experience gave him a good indicator of what schools needed but a brief exchange with him at a dinner of a right-wing thinktank about the lack of careers advice now available in schools suggested his understanding was less acute than he thought. (The exchange was brief as I was then effectively told to shut up so that more sycophantic attendees could metaphorically pat him on the back.) He clearly believed children did not need careers advice provided because (and I quote what he said to me) ‘any self-respecting 16 year old can find all they need to know on the web.’ Really? How would the confused child know what questions to put into a Google search when they have no idea what careers are out there? How would they begin to know what careers might suit them given a particular set of interests/ strong GCSE subjects? I was not impressed, but I was not allowed to challenge his response.

Education sits uncomfortably between the DfE and BIS with less communication than is desirable. In order to help joined-up thinking (at least I assume this was the underlying motivation) via the use of outsiders, a group known as the DfE STEM Ministerial Group was set up to meet 3-4 times a year. In principle both the Schools minister and the Universities minister attend, plus an entourage of associated civil servants. Too often these meetings were rearranged at short notice, so that many of the group members – representatives from key professional STEM bodies including the Royal Society – weren’t able to attend. Meetings took place with any number between zero and two ministers actually present because of the other calls on their time. When two ministers were present I think the meetings were genuinely useful, with those of us making up the group able to express our views freely on the key topics of the moment. When this wasn’t the case, the meetings were much less valuable or even interesting.

At the meetings the body language between the officials present (including the ministers; Willetts was obviously much more comfortable with Truss than with her predecessor Gibb) was interesting, with the civil servants from the two ministries often sitting as far apart as possible. At least that’s what it looked like to the outsider. Also remarkable upon occasion was the civil servants’ (in)ability to answer fundamental questions about the reforms that were being rushed out. This occurred particularly during the meeting discussing A level and GCSE reforms, when no one seemed to have any useful answers to the barrage of questions we raised. It was not a reassuring performance. This was at a point when no minister was present to hear the unease voiced, which made it all the more depressing.

Now Truss has moved on to higher things as Environment Secretary, Gibb is back as schools minister. I don’t feel particularly optimistic about his vision. During a one-to-one meeting I had with him at the DfE (one-to-one, that is, if you discount all the civil servants who lined the walls) I was astonished to find him challenging me to do a sum of long division he had written down on some paper on his desk. Well known for having a bee in his bonnet about this particular approach (as he discusses himself earlier this year here) I declined to play his game, saying that I thought there were more useful things to use the time for. One key outcome of that meeting was the upping of the frequency of the group meetings from 3 to four a year. I was told by one of his minders as we headed for the lift that the Minister must have enjoyed the meeting, since it overran by 15 minutes. I can’t say I did, or that I was edified by what I learnt. I have no doubt he will be more than happy to continue with Gove’s ‘reforms’ as, presumably, will the new Minister of State Nicky Morgan although I have no first-hand experience of her.

I live in hope that the Vision for STEM Education Report that the Royal Society has produced in its recent report will indeed provide some vision for the new ministerial team, although without very much confidence that my hopes are well-placed. The one encouraging sign I see in terms of joined-up thinking is that Nick Boles (again not someone I have met) is a joint BIS-DfE appointment covering Skills, Enterprise and Equalities. Anything that enables these two ministries to work well together to the benefit of our young has to be a good thing; the disjunction that has been the norm over the past few years cannot have helped post-GCSE STEM progression, apprentices, FE colleges or any other of the crucial stages at 16+. So, although no longer so closely connected with this work, I will continue to follow it with keen interest.

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