Think Like An Education Secretary 2016

In a tradition that now spans three education secretaries, it’s this year’s Education Secretary Christmas Reading List. (Gosh, aren’t we all getting old).

This year we have a new overlord, Justine Greening.

She’s actually really smart, and interesting, and seems ‘nice’, if that isn’t an offensive word to use about people these days. Almost everyone who has met her says this. Which is really good for the sector, but a bit rubbish for anyone trying to write a funny book list related to her foibles.

Still, because it’s Christmas, I did what I always do and used my professional judgment (best guesses) to discern (totes guesses) what Justine Greening has been reading this year.

And this is where the clues led….

1. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F*ck – Sarah Knight

It takes a special sort of person to be the first comprehensively-educated education secretary and then, for your first policy, announce you are bringing back selective schools which is basically the evidence-equivalent of saying you don’t believe in climate change or that you are about to replace the NHS with homeopathy. One can only presume this is because J-Green read this best-seller by Knight which launched last New Year’s eve as a book for people whose only resolutions for 2016 were not having any resolutions. (As it turned out this was probably for the best, given most dreams for 2016 have been comprehensively defecated on all year).

The book is a dirge on the importance of not really giving a stuff about other people’s opinions. Greening has shown she can do this with panache, having sent out an email saying the government were defo going ahead with its mad grammar school plan less than 72 hours after it closed its consultation. Sad that you spent so long writing up your consultation response? Sorry! You should have spent more time life-changingly not giving a f*ck!

One of the greatest pieces of advice in this book is to “offer your regret” (for being a terrible person) “in a timely fashion” – which also made me think that former education secretary Michael Gove has been reading this book this year. Six YEARS after he cancelled a bunch of buildings for schools in desperate need of new shelter he finally ‘fessed up and said that he had made a hash of the thing and he regretted it. Well gee, thanks Michael. But, having read Knight’s book, I find it rather magical to say I don’t give a monkeys for your inadequately late regret. Cheers anyway, love! *thumbs up emoji*

2. The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working Class Kids Still Get Working Class Jobs – James Bloodworth

Okay, okay. Greening is nice, so the barbs above were mean. (They were also true, but yes, a bit mean).

What Greening actually seems motivated by is working under the radar in order to make inching improvements in life conditions. She has announced six “opportunity areas” around the country where the government is going to put cash and elbow grease with the aim of improving the lot of poorer kids in the area. The approach is neat and gets to the heart of meritocracy chats which have come up all over the place this year but nowhere better than in James Bloodworth’s The Myth Of Meritocracy, which talks at length about the fact that people often work damn hard but their employment and wages are still often pitifully unstable. Bloodworth gives ideas for changing schooling (and the workplace) to help. Greening’s plan to trial these sorts of policies in areas of need, with eventual scaling if they work, is right out of Bloodworth’s leftist playbook even if the blues want to recapture social mobility as their right-wing baby.

3. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way – Katharine Birbalsingh and assorted cast members

Justine Greening will have had this book thrust at her by Nick Gibb whether she likes it or not. I know this because Nick Gibb needles me about how marvellous Michaela Community (Free) School is every time I see him and I don’t even have any actual power.

Our conversations tend to go like this:

Nick Gibb: Hello, Laura. That was a mean thing you wrote about me the other day. But, more importantly, have you been to Michaela School yet? I went recently and the children there eat with knives and forks and it is brilliant and you should go.

Me: I haven’t been. Also lots of children eat with knives and forks. But good for them.

Nick Gibb: Oh no, they don’t eat with knives and forks like the children at Michaela. There they eat so beautifully, altogether and in time, that it makes middle class people weep. Have you really not been?

Me: No.

Nick Gibb: Well you really should. Also, did I mention about how they learn facts?….

And so on…

Admittedly this is a little bit of a paraphrase (though not as much as you might think) but if you’ve never had the joy of running into Nick Gibb, or otherwise learning about Michaela, then you need to know it is a comprehensive secondary in north London with an obsession for structures and practices to aid learning and an evangelical zeal about sharing them. It’s a bit draconian in its implementation of policies for some tastes but there’s nothing fundamentally evil about what its staff are doing. Many practices are just old wine in new bottles and some of the new innovations are rather handy. The team have done a particularly good job of creating sexy new terminology that I expect Gibb will encourage Greening to drop into speeches next year to show how hip she is for having consumed this book. Keep an eye out for “knowledge organisers” as the new word for “schemes of work” and watch as “summer school” becomes “bootcamp” and anything now debunked gets replaced with “cognitive psychology”.

4. Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With The Language of Politics – Mark Thompson

Nicky Morgan (remember her?) was also guilty of this crime but Justine Greening has continued this year’s fad for having a single strapline and sticking to it: damn all context, truth, or even sense. While Morgs was always hamming up “educational excellence everywhere” we have had that replaced with Greening’s insistence on using two key phrases. One: “schools that work for everyone”. Which is hilarious, in part because the document it is based on only talks about bright children and doesn’t give two figs for children with special needs, but also because there’s scant evidence grammar schools work much for anyone at all. (There’s that magic of not giving a f*ck again!).

The other phrase Greening has clung to like a limpet in a tidal wave is the fact there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010. Putting aside the fact this is largely down to a baby boom and immigration (shhh, don’t wake the Brexiteers), it’s also because the Ofsted frameworks changed and they are incomparable now anyway. Forsooth!

Still, as Mark Thompson’s rollicking read on the language of politics points out, “word work” can make or break politics. Hence the current trend is for hammering home a simple point – damn its truthfulness – and doing so in a way that is less about actual persuasion and more like an algorithm which works out just how often someone needs to hear a message before believing it. Saying schools are ace and grammars “work for everyone” enough times and it turns out people might just believe it’s true. Greening’s own soul might even start to believe it, eventually.

3 books Justine Greening probably didn’t read this year… but should

This is the bit where I pontificate about what books the education secretary probably should have read. [NB: Special advisors, this bit is for you. Just stick them in her bag. It’ll work a treat].

1. Don’t send him in tomorrow – Jarlath O’Brien

The parts of the school community dealing with children outside the mainstream – whether that’s special needs schools, pupil referral units, hospital schools, whatever – are commonly missed from political discourse. That’s stupid. Because it is one of the areas where there is the most good to be leveraged even just by talking about them more. Why education politicians fail to get this point is entirely beyond me. Even more crazy is that O’Brien’s brilliant book, which gives all the facts and figures to show why this sector matters, AND practical solutions for improving it, is a ready-made speech for a politician with the cojones to give it. Sod letting Edward Timpson read this and steal some future glory where he tries to tackle the alternative education system. Greening should be all over it as soon as the turkey is finished and scribbling down notes for her next big speech.

2. The regulation of standards in British life – Gillian Peele and David Hine

Should you ever wish to invoke raised eyebrows from the staff and visitors at an entire spa, I do suggest reading this gloriously titled book while lounging by the jacuzzi and shouting “oh good point” as you turn the pages. (What do you mean have I ever done this? Pfffsshh…. *noticeably doesn’t answer*).

Peele and Hine’s book looks incredibly dull and, let’s be honest, because it is written by academics and published by an academic publishing house, it’s overly long and a bit pretentious in parts. BUT, there are neat summaries at the end of each chapter and the actual content is glorious. Looking at the trend for regulation the points out what the consequences are for trust, accountability, public services, costs, etc. In a sector where we love a good regulator – come on now, who didn’t send a Christmas card to Ofqual? – this is a particularly apt read.

Academies are particularly affected by regulation as intrusion by Ofsted, the schools commissioners, and the education funding agency are the main ways ministers are trying to ensure academy freedoms are not used for piss-taking (also known as: paying yourself a second salary, or failing to teach science, etc, etc). But, as Peele and Hine point out, if this regulation is poorly done or, sometimes, overdone it can actually undermine policies. The education department are very very far from having perfected regulation of academies. This book won’t solve that. But Greening learning more about the latest thinking on this topic certainly wouldn’t hurt.

3.Passing Time In The Loo – Steven W Anderson

Finally, if I can give Greening a bit of advice for future speeches, it would be that she needs a bit of oomph. She’s not the greatest speaker, and that’s in comparison to woodentop Nicky Morgan (ouch), and because of that she’s coming across a bit… impersonal. Which is a shame because, as I said at the start, there’s a very likable and smart politician hiding inside her. If she doesn’t let it out, though, she’ll lose the broader sector and I fear a louder, more charismatic, possibly madder and certainly less competent politician will try and wrestle the education brief from her. So, my final recommendation for the year is that she gets herself a copy of the brilliant Passing Time In The Loo – which is a huge compendium of 2-page summaries of novels and classic texts, and pages and pages of funny quotes. A little humour and pop culture might just be the thing to elevate her speeches from being good in her head, to also being ones that people engage with.

I know, I know, it’s very uncool to say that you have to grab people’s interests these days with fluffy analogies and a wisecrack. But as any headteacher who takes assembly will tell you: the way you pass on the message really matters as to whether or not the kids take it home and tell their parents.


Right, folks. That’s 2016 almost done. Go get a survivor’s t-shirt.

See you in 2017 to do it all over again.

One thought on “Think Like An Education Secretary 2016

  1. thanks Laura. I occasionally dip into a cautionary book called ‘The blunders if government’ by 2 respected politics academics. But then it gets too depressing so I dip out again. Thanks for all your commentary it really does help us all to reflect on education policy choices.

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