Think Like An Education Secretary 2015

Another Christmas Eve, another Education Secretary’s annual reading list.

But this year there’s a problem: Nicky Morgan doesn’t seem to like books.

She almost never mentions them. Her speeches seldom quote books. She rarely singles out ideas from authors. Admittedly, a few days ago, she asked everyone to buy their children a book for Christmas. But what book would Morgs like them to buy? Not obvious. She never says.

Still, as is tradition, I have used my best detective skills to work out what books our edu-sec Nicky has been reading over 2015. If you want to understand her, it would be worth you reading them too.

1.Paul Tough – How Children Succeed (aka ‘The Grit Book’)

When asked by the TES for her recommendation of one book every teacher should read, Nicky Morgan picked this: the yawn-tastic Paul Tough ‘grit’ book. First appearing in this list in 2012 it’s the sort of choice that a special advisor makes for you: just classic enough to make you sound knowledgeable about schools, not wayward enough to mark you out as actually having a personality. Next!

2. David Didau – What if everything you knew about education was wrong (aka ‘The wrong book’)

After reading this I like to imagine Morgan sending it on to schools minister Nick Gibb who returned it with the words ‘IT’S NOT’ scrawled on the front, and told her to stick it in the bin.

3. Jonathan Simons and Natasha Porter (Eds) – Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany ED Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange

This doesn’t have a catchy name, which is a shame because it needs one. The title does accurately tell you what it is about though. It’s collection of love letters (sorry ‘essays’) to ED Hirsch, the elderly American academic, who has led the thinking of successive Conservative education politicians and particularly captured the heart of Nick Gibb. The book does a good job of exploring his ideas. And it’s not all positive. Chris Husbands in particular needles at some of his thoughts. There’s also a rather fabulous passage where James O’Shaugnessy (leader of an academy chain, and recently made a Lord) bemoans how some pupils have never visited the seaside: “They lacked any of the shared cultural reference points that many of us take for granted – fish and chips, the sailing metaphors that abound in spoken English, a basic understanding of marine plant life”. His solution is that they must be exposed to “the best that has been thought and said”. If you can figure out how that helps them understand fish and chips, you’re a better person than me. (Also, next time I meet O’Shaughnessy I’m asking him to name five types of marine plant).

4. Philip Tetlock – Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Got a problem? It’s okay. Nicky Morgan has a solution. EXPERT GROUPS. This year she started 12 of the things, and it sounds like more are to come. Sometimes the groups are diverse, sometimes not. The strategy has also been criticised for being diversionary – making it look like things are happening when they are not.

Tetlock’s book provides a fascinating overview of research showing that ‘accurately selected amateurs’ can often make better predictions and recommendations for the future than can so-called ‘experts’. Perhaps these groups will use the wisdom of crowds to solve all our education woes after all.

5. Disney – Finding Nemo: A Personalised Adventure

Like her predecessor, Morgan knows how to turn a cultural reference to her advantage. Asked in an interview earlier this year if she liked the nickname ‘NiMo’ given to her by people in the media with a penchant for shortening names, she wholeheartedly agreed, though she was at pains to point out that her son preferred stories about fish Nemo, than about her.


Books Nicky Morgan probably didn’t read this year… but should


6. John Kay – Other People’s Money

Far removed from the world of education, Kay’s book takes a critical look at the finance industry, and why it got so out of control. The title refers to the way decisions are made in banking secretly, and for the benefit of traders, n the back of “other people’s money”. There are lessons here for schools. When it’s “other people’s kids” and “taxpayer’s money” decisions about education, especially when not open and transparent, can quickly become self-serving. The descriptions of ‘gaming behaviour’ have relevance for the school sector and a smart education secretary would be getting ahead of them.

7. Eric Dezenhall – Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management

Schools minister Nick Gibb can tell people there isn’t a teacher recruitment crisis until the cows come home. But if people feel there is, then that has to be dealt with. Plus there’s plenty of other crises coming: the total curriculum, assessment, performance table, and exam reform revolution is about to come home to roost, and some of it isn’t going to be pretty. This classic of the genre describes how to explain the difference between ‘a nuisance, a problem, a crisis and an assault’. Knowing this before heading into parliamentary question sessions over the next year is likely to be vital.

8. John Baldoni – Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up

Finally, 2015 was the year when Morgan intimated that she might want to run for leader of the Conservative party when David Cameron steps down. In doing so she has made George Osborne quivery (he’d deny this, obvs, but I reckon it bothered him). Subtle moves will be needed to keep the upper echelons of the party onside in the coming years, but if she can manage it – she could, one day, be a contender. This book might just help explain how.



One thought on “Think Like An Education Secretary 2015

  1. She – and many others – would do well to read Peter Barnard’s The Systems Thinking School. A clear case for stopping the relentless cycle of system-level reform, in favour of better organisational design in schools.

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