Jonathan Simons is a Director and Head of the Education Practice at Public First, and a former government adviser.
“The pyramids themselves, doting with age, have forgotten the names of their founders”
These words are from Thomas Fuller, a churchman and historian during the English Civil War. His argument is that over time, even the greatest monuments can be taken for granted. We admire their presence, rather than how they came to be.
It is important to remember that the system of state education in England is comparatively recent. We have only had a national curriculum since 1988. Schools have only been allowed to be free from local government control since the early 1990s – and as recently as a decade ago, only around 200 of 23,000 schools were using these freedoms. It was only in 2010 that Michael Gove made a series of significant structural and curricular changes to state education in England.
Yet in the last year, I have observed the uncomfortable situation in which some Conservatives who claim the mantle of education reformers are simultaneously advocating Covid-driven changes which at best pay little heed to, and at worst threaten to actively undermine, the reasons why the reforms made in 2010 were done and remain so important.
By no means was the Gove programme perfect. In part, the underpinning legal and regulatory system was not thought through properly. No one would imagine – nor would find desirable – the fact that, 11 years later, Gavin Williamson runs over 5,000 schools under contract, governed by a strange mix of company law and charity law, directly from Westminster.
But the risk is that in this time of widespread feeling that Something Must Be Done, we are forgetting the names of the founders of the pyramids and the work that they went through.
The planning before the election, the bringing together of fellow dedicated reformers (Nick Gibb now the last one standing), and the battles that they fought within an education sector and against opponents who were implacably opposed both to the theory of change and seemingly – at times – the very legitimacy of politicians to presume to interfere in those matters which ought in their view to be left to the sector.
This all, among too many Conservatives, has become ancient history. And at the very time when even erstwhile opponents like Fiona Millar say they recognise that the current system has some legitimacy by virtue of its persistence, those who ought to be its strongest supporters risk forgetting that history.
Because make no mistake about it: while there are many well-intentioned people who rightly argue in a time of Covid that all parts of the State may need to be considered afresh, there are some who have maintained a hostility to all elements of reform, and who are using the cover of a pandemic to march under an old standard once again.
The second risk is that in an attempt to be seen as more reasonable and accommodating, some current Conservatives may not only forget the history of battles fought, but will not understand why they were fought in the first place.
This is the most frustrating thing about education policy: that those things which evidence and practice suggests are most likely to work are often the hardest to describe and seek support for. They don’t sound immediately obvious. They don’t have snappy slogans. Real education reform doesn’t compete well in the marketplace for short attention spans against cries of “scrap GCSEs” or “ban exclusions” or “educate children for the jobs of the future”.
It is easy for opponents to cast aspersions on the motives of reformers. Why, they ask, is it that some people don’t want to see happy children? Why is it that they want to see such travesties as rote learning, thick textbooks, the pressure of exams, children filled with facts from a world of predominantly white men, and classrooms with rows of desks?
All too often, the challenge is not answered. And that answer is that, of course reformers want the same thing. Everyone wants young people leaving school who are happy, well rounded, educated young people – those who are ready to take their place in the United Kingdom and to forge their own destiny.
The question is one of means, not ends. It is about how best all young people – and in particular, those who are born with less of the attendant advantages of wealth and familial support – can be supported to do so.
And here reformers take the leap away from much of that which sounds instinctive. We do not, as the village, raise the child through letting them stumble around under a delusion of kindness. We bring to bear – gently, sympathetically, but unapologetically – the collective wisdom of all our prior generations.
We know, and are unashamed of saying, that there is what Professor Michael Young called powerful knowledge, which is knowledge which unlocks further knowledge, and it is this which we prioritise for passing on.
We know, and are unashamed of saying, that well designed assessments and exams, including at GCSE, tell us how young people are performing, allow us to hold schools to account, and aid children in retaining this powerful knowledge for future life.
We know, and are unashamed of saying, that the teacher is the expert in the room, and aided by stores of knowledge and their own expertise, that their role is to instruct the student.
We know, and are unashamed of saying, that we set the highest expectations of all pupils, and that poor behaviour cannot be accepted. It is by doing all these things that, rather than hamper children, we best develop them as happy, confident, creative young people.
This message takes time and understanding. It does not always fit within the day to day rhythms of political life. But it is the golden thread of true education reformers of all parties: just as Gove built on work of Andrew Adonis and David Blunkett, who in turn developed that of Ken Baker and others.
And while this does not mean, of course, that nothing should ever change, it is the role of those who truly have the highest expectations for young people to understand what has been built and why, and not give in easily and carelessly to whims, or slogans, or loose calls for radical change.
Such people should also note Swift’s maxim that the echo of a London coffee house does not reflect the voice of the kingdom. Beneath the chatter of supposed discontent, a lot of work we have done at Public First with parents of all social classes and political leanings shows that they want just this type of education for their own children.
So when attention turns, as it does at the moment, to how our school system should react to Covid, we should remind ourselves what are the pyramidal stones on which our system has been built, and ask whether the proposed solutions are likely to strengthen those foundations – or send them toppling down.