My memory of early evening, Friday November 14, 2003, is hazy.
My brain seems to think it was raining, and a Met Office report concurs. “Bands of heavy rain and showers were carried on gale-force south-westerly winds.”
I’m pretty sure that a meeting I attended in the late afternoon took place after dark. A quick google confirms the sun went down that day at 4.13pm.
My only other memory of that meeting is of a red-haired, indignant young man arguing ferociously that SATs were a terrible, terrible thing. They were so bad, in fact, they “destroyed teaching”, and he sided with trade unionists wanting to scrap them.
With the help of Josh O’Connor, democratic support officer at the Oxford University Student Union, I was able to confirm this too. There, in the minutes of the union’s council meeting from that dark, wet, blustery day, is the proof that John Blake – this week anointed as the new head of education at right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange – really, really hated testing once upon a time.
My only other memory of that meeting is of a red-haired, indignant young man arguing ferociously that SATs were a terrible, terrible thing
Not so these days. Blake is now a member of Parents and Teachers for Excellence, the campaign group made from a gaggle of politicians’ favoured educators, with the aim of pushing rigorous testing and curriculum as the cure for education’s ills, as opposed to academies and free schools. (Although it is notable that most of them seem to really like academies. And free schools.).
Blake’s Damascene conversion, from the hippy left to test-loving right, is not unusual. Voters commonly become more Conservative as they age (Blake is 35) and he’s not the first to flip-flop publicly. Chris Woodhead, the first head of Ofsted back in 1994, espoused the same sorts of ideas as early Blake when he was a teacher, but by the end of his career was scornful of people who thought tests were damaging children.
So history tells us converts are often the most forthright. (Blake will approve this example, he was a history teacher until very recently.) And Policy Exchange have been an incredibly influential force on government policy over the past six years. With a man on a mission at the helm, this may continue.
Policy Exchange’s power can be seen in the impressive number of policies foreshadowed in their reports: reducing the frequency of Ofsted inspections, sharpening up acountability, removing vocational qualifications from league tables in favour of a focus on so-called academic GCSEs. For years, if Policy Exchange wrote it, someone in government was probably seriously considering it.
This wealth of power also made it a target for critics who argued its access to politicians was undeserved and unions particularly cat-called the fact no one knew who the group was speaking up for. (Funders of the organisation are not routinely disclosed.)
While much of the organisation’s successes were down to its charismatic former head of education, Jonathan Simons, whose oratory skills are a force to be reckoned with, an unshakeable criticism was that he had never taught.
Blake has taught. In some pretty challenging secondary schools, too
Blake has taught. In some pretty challenging secondary schools, too. He will also be supported by two sidekicks, Mark Lehain and Tom Richmond, who will continue working part-time in schools, helping keep their education experience relevant.
Teaching is not a synonym for being correct, though. And neither is being left or right-leaning.
One of Simons’ skills was that he listened to a broad range of evidence and came up with workable practical solutions to problems. Reducing the number of Ofsted inspections undertaken in a year in favour of a risk-based approach was neither a Conservative nor a Labour idea. It was common sense.
Likewise, if Blake, having now taught and looked carefully at the evidence has concluded that, despite his younger self’s views, tests are the best way to drive improvement, then his success will simply depend on how well he can come up with a plan for achieving its implementation. Not a “right-wing” plan, or a “left-wing” one. Simply one that works. If he does, history again suggests the government is likely to implement it.
Which only leaves one issue to wrap up. Why was I in the meeting with Blake on that Friday in 2003? The minutes are devoid of any mention of me.
As is the case in this editorial, my opinions on primary testing are silent. But I shall look forward to watching what the red-haired, still indignant not-quite-so-young Blake does next.