If I were Education Secretary …

Play Video

If I were Education Secretary …

Martyn Beer writes:

If I were Education Secretary I would look to change the board on which the game is played. Build a consensus around a shared responsibility for every child in our system, prioritising the most vulnerable. Since 2010 we have been forced to focus on structures, obsessing on funding and governance alongside the accepted drivers of accountability measures and outcomes. The pervading culture now feels dominated – in spite of the best of ourselves – by resentful compliance, by passive aggressive gaming of the system to try and maximise local success, sometimes with affiliation that spans more broadly, and leaving others to defend their own interests and needs. We fixate on the outcomes – the What? – and the means – the How? – hoping that the Why will take care of itself. (Simon Sinek: The Golden Circles) 

This Why?, this sense of purpose, would be, should be, our starting point. What is, what should be, the purpose for our education system? What are we trying to achieve for our young people? For our country? For our world? What is our Why? How well are we achieving this for the most vulnerable in our care? How do we answer this question if we accept responsibility for all young people, not just those in our school, Trust group/ flavour of schools or Local Authority?  

The reality of the school year leaves us struggling to find the time to consider these questions as fully as they deserve. I have been part of training sessions with aspiring Senior Leaders where the room has become awkwardly silent as we’ve considered the question of the purpose of schools in general and our own school’s in particular.  A previous secretary of state, Gavin Williamson, would see education’s purpose as being transactional, a preparation for the world of work:  

“We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job” (Gavin Williamson 9/7/20 https://feweek.co.uk/2020/07/09/gavin-williamsons-speech-on-fe-reform-the-full-text/

I would argue that this is an important part of what should be a far more ambitious aim. We have something of a glorious responsibility, with the care of our young, and shouldn’t accept such reductive thinking as to limit this ambition to the pragmatics of a future labour market in which the only certainty will be its uncertainty. We do though! More than that, this acceptance then dominates (with a potent mix of politicisation) the shapes into which our schools and our young people are contorted.  

I have also been part of too many round table, blue sky, policy discussions that have intentionally sought to ignore the elephant in the room regarding purpose, with leading educational thinkers explaining that the consensus around purpose is too difficult to find when all the key stake holders are consulted and that we should therefore park that discussion and move onto the more pragmatic and possible. Less on the Why? Show us the How and the What!  

There are some flickers of light in Gavin Williamson’s words though. Light that should be magnified and built upon. He wouldn’t be my role model in this post but at least he’s looked to address the question in his way. Firstly let’s talk about purpose, let’s argue about it and find common ground that we can build on. If we can’t, anything we build will be on shaky, sandy foundations. Education, the future of our young, the future of our world is too important an edifice to neglect those foundations.  

Education is a gift. It’s a gift for life. It’s hard and, as with most things that involve people, it’s messy but stratospherically valuable. We need to be concerned about standards, structures and rigour but not at the expense of investing, financially and emotionally (as Kevan Collins argued powerfully but unsuccessfully), in our young, in our teachers and in our leaders. We need to provide an environment where our young – all of them – can flourish for life (including but not limited to work). We need to acknowledge that a society in which inequality grows is an ailing society. One in which the haves lose as well as the have nots (The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson). This investment is so much more than financial (but stops quibbling about the allocation of paltry scraps and starts acknowledging the urgent need for a proper assessment of the real value and therefore the real cost of an education system that can fully meet the needs of our young.) An investment that should meet needs from birth: that trains, values and celebrates those to whom we entrust this vocation. An investment that nurtures learning, curiosity and wellbeing in their fullest senses. One that sees that the joy of learning invigorates life from cradle to grave.  

If I were Education Secretary I would look to build consensus around the purpose of education and then work to remove obstacles so that those in education can harness all their energies and resources to achieve that goal. I would expect it be based around changing the world and life chances of each child for the better, coupled with a refusal to accept that it’s ok when this isn’t the case.  

I would want to build a culture of working with those in schools, showing trust in their expertise, knowledge of their local contexts along with their insight into the best ways to meet needs that arise. This would be accompanied by intelligent use of research evidence to support collaborative work to improve outcomes – some of which may be measurable – focussing on the needs of the most vulnerable. A Quaker poster showing the benefit for, in this case, two donkeys competing and then working together springs to mind here – cooperation is better than conflict. How can all of us in education coalesce and harness our collective energies around the maxim that our responsibility is for every child in the country not just those in our school or group of schools? Education for the Common Good will be of benefit to us all. Reducing inequalities of opportunity and life chances will be of benefit to us all. The discussions around assessment, accountability measures, structures, governance and funding should be centred around this foundational truth.  

If I were Education Secretary I would look to be the last one. I would want the role to be obsolete by the end of my term. I would want leadership of the educational system to sit outside of politics, to build generationally and be based on the best evidence. Like parenting, like teaching, educational leadership is too important a role to be used as a political rung on the career ladder (up or down) and needs to be handed back to the professionals. 

Chapter taken from ‘If I were Education Secretary … Views from the frontline’ edited by Geoff Barton 

Martyn Beer is Deputy Head of Bootham School and convener of our Quaker Education Conferences.

Leave a Comment