Ministers often have a “limited policy agenda” to improve teaching, with structural reform considered more “easy”, a former head of the Department for Education has said.
Jonathan Slater, who was sacked over the 2020 exams fiasco after four years in post, made the comments on a panel at the Foundation for Education Development national education summit today.
He said education secretaries “always say” the best way to improve schools is good teaching and leadership, with “quite a lot of evidence” to back them up.
But he said it was “surprising having said that, quite often how limited the policy agenda is actually helping teachers do their jobs better”.
Ministers recently outlined a target to have all schools in academy trusts or in the process of joining by 2030. However, they have had to go back to the drawing board on wide-ranging planned new powers over schools.
Slater said today that “structural reorganisation is easy”, adding: “You can create a new organisation pretty easily. Actually improving the quality of teaching and helping teachers do a good job is a lot harder, isnt it?”
DfE risks ‘disconnect’ from frontline
He also warned the DfE was at risk of becoming “disconnected from the frontline” because teachers are not involved in policymaking.
Teachers and leaders were “part of the conversation” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and policy was “all the better for it”.
But much of the “architecture” put in place to enable this was shut down in the coalition government’s “bonfire of the quangos”.
He also criticised the language of “hard-edged accountability” he said he encountered when he joined the DfE in 2016.
“Why not just accountability? It’s a sort of fantastically tough regime. That is not really conducive to partnership between the people who’ve actually got to help kids day in, day out and the ministers who are going to be around for a short period of time.”
Since the mid-1970s, ministers have not thought of themselves “as the allies of teachers”, with some exceptions – including Labour minister and former teacher Estelle Morris, he said.
Most ministers had ‘no vision’
Of the four education secretaries Slater served, only one, Justine Greening had “a sort of vision”, he said. Slater also served under Nicky Morgan, Damian Hinds and Gavin Williamson.
He said Greening made clear to officials her own background made her determined to deliver social mobility.
“If you’ve got a secretary of state with a clear ambition, you can drive,” he said, highlighting the opportunity areas initiative.
But Greening “didn’t drive for long” because of her short tenure at the DfE. And Slater said this wasn’t meant as criticism of other ministers, adding he was he was “sympathetic” to those who “only get a year”.
Asked about the lowest point of his time running the department between May 2016 and August 2020, he called it “just one day’s fun after another”, prompting laughter, before highlighting the Covid exams saga.
He added that he “did spend an awful lot of time trying to stop things happening”.
“I used to watch ‘Yes, Minister’ before I was a civil servant and I was outraged by these caricatures of permanent secretaries trying to stop ministers getting things done. Then I found myself in government.”
The government’s attempt to academise every school by 2022 was one example.
“There was no way it was going to work. I had to do the thing permanent secretaries do to bring that to an end as quick as possible.”