How Not to Criticise an Education Secretary

February 25, 2012

I’ve been having feelings of déjà-vu lately.  Every so often I encounter somebody commenting on education and I am whisked away to about 1998. I hear complaints about the current education secretary which seem to be an echo of what I heard back then, when David Blunkett was education secretary. Blunkett, like Gove, had held the education portfolio in opposition and arrived with a clear idea of what he wanted to do. Yet these same complaints did not appear quite so frequently for the visionless seat-warmers who held the position in-between. There are some complaints about education secretaries which are not a complaint about how they do their job, they are actually just a complaint that they do their job. The three classics are:

1) The education secretary “politicises” education.

This usually means amounts to the complaint that the politician in charge of education acts as if they are a politician in charge of education. “Politicisation” consists mainly of a) deciding on policies, b) arguing with people who disagree with those policies and c) attempting to implement those policies. It is often simply assumed that the opinions of a politician are worthless because they are “political” and the opinions of an educationalist, education journalist or education commentator are not. Michael Gove will always be identified as a Tory; David Blunkett as New Labour. But when a non-politician talks about education, whether they are an academic, journalist or activist, their politics are considered incidental to their views. This is even the case for those education commentators who have a history of involvement in politics and extremist politics. I for one would love it if next time Michael Rosen is on the radio arguing against teaching children to read he was described as “an associate of the SWP” or “a former candidate for Respect” rather than as “a children’s author”. Nobody is “apolitical” on education. The difference between politicians and others is not that they are political but they are open about it. When an education secretary is accused of making education political it simply means that they defend what they are doing in public. While what they are doing may not be right, it is much better if education decisions are discussed in public than if they are not. The worst ideas we, as teachers, are faced with are very often not those that are at the heart of public debate, but those like the introduction of A.P.P., the abolition of the National Literacy and National Numeracy Strategies or the creation of SEAL lessons which happened with minimal political discussion and largely below the threshold of public awareness.

2) The education secretary has never been a teacher.

I am the first person to talk about the importance of listening to the frontline in education and how, it is often hard for people outside of the system to have any idea about what it is like. However, while I think that the perspective of teachers is so important, I have no confidence at all in the  perspective of people who used to teach and then got a job in the education bureaucracy. LA consultants, teacher trainers, CPD deliverers or OFSTED inspectors do not noticeably have the respect of the teaching profession just because they used to be teachers; so why would an education secretary? It is entirely possible to have been a teacher and have no understanding of the system, as demonstrated by Estelle Morris, the one education secretary to have quit in disgrace due to realising she wasn’t up to the job. Ironically, the people who criticise education secretaries for showing leadership or direction often praise Estelle Morris, although admittedly they tend to go a bit quiet when asked to name anything she achieved in office. From their perspective doing nothing and quitting is the ideal performance from an education secretary.

A further irony in this particular complaint is that, although I have frequently heard it used against David Blunkett, he did actually qualify as a teacher and teach in an FE college.

For pity's sake, no.

3) The Education Secretary is not an expert.

Now, anybody in charge of a particular department, particular if they held it in opposition for a period of time, has a chance to read up on how that department and its associated instruments work. It is obviously better if somebody knows this stuff than if they don’t and I would be the first to criticise those education secretaries who didn’t seem to know their brief or have any idea what was going on in the education system. However, this complaint is not made simply if the education secretary gets something wrong, it is made when they dare say something that is in touch with the public. Too often “expertise” in education is not to know what is going on in education in practice, but to know what is going on in theory.  To dare mention the Behaviour Crisis, or dumbing-down or anything else that we see every day in schools, is to provoke a wide variety of “expert” denialists. If you are a teacher and you mention it to the wrong audience then all of what you have seen is anecdotal. If a politician dares mention the truth it is “an agenda” and the Daily Mail will probably be suggested as a possible source. Even worse though, those who make this criticism tend to be confused between values and empirical facts. They will not recognise the difference between asking what works and asking what is worthwhile. They will suggest that academics are equally equipped to answer the latter as the former and seek to suggest that neither the public nor their elected representatives have any right to a say in what the public money invested in education is meant to achieve.

Now, none of this is meant to be an apologia for Gove or Blunkett. As politicians showing leadership there is much to criticise them for. By all means criticise Gove for what is happening to our pay and conditions, our pensions and for some of the truly terrible people who are now, or likely to be, running free schools and academies. Criticise Blunkett for centralisation, tuition fees or his involvement in the thinking skills initiative. But don’t criticise any education secretary for doing their job and simply not being a mindless bureaucrat quietly imposing the ideas of the bureaucracy.


  1. “Criticise Blunkett for … his involvement in the thinking skills initiative.”

    All right then, I will!

    Excellent post as usual. I agree with most of it, particularly that the worst decisions happen beneath the radar. Alison Wolf makes the same point about vocational education. It gets very few column inches and is rarely discussed in public. So terrible decisions can be made and implemented without anyone realising or trying to stop it.

    I agree particularly on APP and SEAL. However I would disagree that the abolition of the National Literacy Strategy was a bad thing. I defer to your knowledge on Numeracy, but the Literacy Strategy did not work. (Although I agree that it wasn’t replaced with anything that did work.) Tom Burkard is good on this. Have you read ‘Inside the Secret Garden’?

    • I should acknowledge your influence on that “thinking skills” remark and link to this: http://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/educational-politics-part-i/

      I am half -tempted to just remove “National Literacy Strategy” from that sentence, as I think it was flawed and probably was nowhere near as effective as the NNS. However, unless you persuade me otherwise, I am going to assume that in as much as it required at least an hour a day to be spent on literacy and accepted whole class teaching it was, nevertheless, superior to what went before it and after it.

  2. http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/features-march-12-chaotic-legacy-of-the-classroom-radicals-matthew-hunter-a-s-neill-summerhill-school-discipline

    This was an unusually frank discussion of behaviour in schools for a mainstream and politically ‘centre-ish’ publication. The worrying think for me was speculation in another article that he may get to number 10. Is he regarded as doing a good job?…news to me.

    I wouldn’t even accuse him of politicising education…it’s more than that. I know New Labour started it, but his rush towards privatisation represents a seismic ideological shift.

  3. ….. Rosen is an epic pillock….
    sorry, thats it…. pray continue…

    • Probably shouldn’t have let that through.

      But I’m sure you mean that as constructive criticism.

  4. The not-at-all-scientific survey here http://talkingeducationandsport.blogspot.com/2012/02/heroes-and-zeros-who-has-been-best-and.html has found a reasonable number of people who are willing to claim that Estelle Morris was the best secretary of state for education (and currently more than for any other secretary of state for education).

    There really are people who think that doing nothing and then quitting is the best performance possible.

    • “There really are people who think that doing nothing and then quitting is the best performance possible.”

      Well obviously it isn’t the best performance possible but it’s clearly the right thing to do if you realise you’ve somehow risen way above your level of competence. And there isn’t an educational institution that I’ve ever worked in, been to or even heard about where her example didn’t have some application.

  5. Here’s a fairly novel way to criticise him:


  6. I agree with you that those are not good reasons to criticise a specific education secretary. But I think they are valid criticisms nonetheless, the problem being that the only way to rectify them is to radically change the system in a way most people probably can’t even imagine let alone support. The education system is run much like the other nationalised industries of the 1970s and before and has much the same problems. How could this be solved? One way would be to radically de-politicise it, have everyone go to autonomous private schools and sit exams set by competing autonomous boards, with the state providing only financial assistance to the poor.

    But I don’t think that’s what the anti-Gove lot have in mind.

    • “The education system is run much like the other nationalised industries of the 1970s…”

      No it’s not. Not even close.

      • Are you sure? There doesn’t seem to be a category difference to me between running a steel factory according to arbitrary weight production targets – regardless of quality or usefulness of the product – and chasing and gaming standardised test scores. Similarly both are really being governed according to political requirements (ie. to produce votes) not for their stated purpose (ie. to produce steel, or impart useful knowledge to children).

        Both are caught in the mire of bureaucracy and ideology because managers are only accountable to more senior managers and politicians, not to their customers. Both have ended up hopelessly dysfunctional and the only effective reform is to destroy the system and replace it with one that produces different incentives.

        • I wouldn’t have said the setting of targets is, in itself, grounds for suggesting there is a strong resemblance to a 70s nationalised industry. Targets in public services have become the norm in the last 20 years or so. The differences between the education system and nationalised industries in terms of governance are far more noticeable than the similarities.

  7. Are you sure you didn’t write this at Easter 2013?

  8. […] grammar I had not realised that this man has hard-core communist form. Well done oldandrew for refreshing honesty on this score […]

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