My simple advice? Let’s just say no
When Theresa May stood in Downing Street, looking the nation firmly in the eye, and proclaimed that she would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”, she seemed to tap into a nation’s craving for unity.
Following the aftershocks of the Brexit result, and the unseemly sight of all those politicians, wide-eyed and panic-stricken, retreating hastily into weekend bolt-holes, here at last was someone with the calm assurance to offer balm to a fractured people.
Her passing swipe at the Cameron/Osborne clique – ‘the privileged few’ of her speech – drew a symbolic line in the sand. That was then, she seemed to be saying, but this is now.
Good, we thought. We fancy a blast of equality.
So it’s a bit surprising that the first actual Theresa May policy announcement was about bringing back grammar schools. There’s more on that in this week’s ‘Youth View’ column by newly-appointed Head Boy, Harry Stonebridge.
Suffice to say that all the ‘Jurassic Park’ films taught us was that reviving dinosaurs rarely goes well. The over-hyped Green Paper with its laughable title ‘Schools that Work For Everyone’ doesn’t convince anyone.
But how did we get here?
Next Easter I will have served fifteen years as headteacher at King Edward VI School. I look at the school’s honours board, dating back to our foundation in 1550 by the young King Edward, and remind myself that I’m a tiny player in the school’s long history. I know that whilst the head is the mouthpiece for the school, it’s the team that counts. Ours is a great team.
But I also reflect on something I have experienced that is very different from all my counterparts in the preceding centuries.
Between 2002 and the present day, there have been eight Secretaries of State for Education, more than one every two years. These are politicians usually with no experience and possibly little interest in education who suddenly find themselves catapulted to the top floor of the Department’s Westminster HQ. Most of them are on a desperate mission to leave their mark on the educational landscape.
Thus every few months a new volley of initiatives is fired at a reluctant teaching profession – changes to the curriculum, qualifications, school structures, conditions of service … changes, in fact, to pretty much everything.
It’s a long and wearing process of endless tinkering by people who are too often chivvied along by fresh-faced advisers who have rarely set foot in schools like the majority of our children attend.
I had hoped that Theresa May would recognise that she had quite enough on her plate with the Brexit aftermath. I was optimistic that she might recognise that six years of convulsive education reform perhaps ought to be allowed to bed in. I thought she might call an end to the relentless cycle of changes, pronouncements and gimmicks.
Instead, she has served up more, leaving her new Education Secretary – herself once a proudly successful comprehensive girl – looking queasy as she quacked dutiful soundbites about selection that would apparently create no losers. All will have prizes in this brave new world.
Except they won’t. The plan won’t work. I’d be surprised if it gets anywhere near the statute book.
There may be a few school leaders or governors who think that as a cheap way to bolster their school’s reputation they should rewind to a divided style of 1950s education.
But the opinion polls show that neither the general public nor the teaching profession have any appetite for it. Branding children failures at 11 simply isn’t the way most parents want to treat their children these days.
And it’s a pity we even have to be contemplating it. Here in our part of West Suffolk, parents have a wonderful choice of primary and secondary schools, and a superb further education college. The idea that people in Westminster should tell us how to run them is insulting.
My advice: let’s just say no.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds