As Nicky Morgan leaves office, her one-time opposite number Lucy Powell glances over her legacy
Teachers everywhere will rejoice that both Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan are no longer part of the government. If Nick Gibb is the hat-trick many will be jubilant. That may sound brutal but after 6 years it’s fair to say many in the profession are demoralised and at the end of their tethers thanks to a government which has ignored them, at best, and set themselves against teachers and school leaders at worst.
Whilst it’s right and proper to acknowledge Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan for their public service it’s also fair to say that their time in office has created a litany of problems at the Department for Education which are creating a perfect storm in our schools system.
Falling school spending for the first time since the 1970s is putting real pressure on school leaders and threatening to limit opportunity for children. A teacher recruitment and retention crisis, with Ministers missing recruitment targets for four years in a row, and more teachers leaving the profession than ever before, is threatening standards as more subjects are taught by non-specialists and applications to teach key STEM subjects vital to our future success are not what they should be.
There is also a real sense of chaos and confusion in the exam and assessment system which is reducing the confidence of parents and teachers in the assessment regime. Assessment is a vital tool for teachers to check progress and signpost children and parents for extra help and support but Ministers have made a complete hash of it.
The instigator of this failure is Michael Gove but Nicky Morgan, despite an early promise to turn the page on relations with the profession has done nothing of the sort, becoming a hostage to Number 10. The narrowing of the curriculum, exactly the opposite of what our high performing competitors are doing when it comes to education policy, is stunting learning and taking the joy out of education for children whilst limiting autonomy for teachers and school leaders.
Time and again experts and professionals have warned about these problems yet Gove and Morgan have kept their heads in the sand. The rush to an all-academy system is another failing of ministers. Rather than evaluate properly the pros and cons of multi-academy trusts as they have developed they have rushed headlong down the academy path without heeding warnings from Ofsted and others that the system is replicating some of the worst failures of the local authority system. A coalition of MPs, council leaders, parents, teachers and school leaders rightly forced a u-turn of forced academisation. Let’s hope the new Education Secretary takes stock and pulls back from repeating the mistakes of her predecessors.
Justine Greening’s chance to create a new vision
So, whilst there has been welcome moves over the last few years, to open up the teaching profession, or put an emphasis on tackling problem behaviour, or tackling homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools, six years of Tory education policy has often been a missed opportunity and a fixation on school structures has meant Ministers have taken their eyes off the ball on other issues.
Justine Greening now has a chance to turn the page and engage with parents, teachers and pupils to tackle the toxic legacy of Gove and Morgan. I don’t know much about her views on education but I do know from conversations I’ve had with her in the Commons that she’s a very decent person. She’ll have a lot in her in-tray, especially given the expansion of the Department for Education to include higher education, skills and apprenticeships.
Key challenges for her will be to stem the exodus of teachers whilst developing a cohesive strategy to recruit enough teachers, bringing stability and clarity to as assessment system in chaos and coming up with a plan to tackle the widening attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.
It was welcome to see prime minister Theresa May talking about the gap in results for white working class boys, something absolutely which should be tackled. But I have concerns about Theresa May’s position on expanding grammar schools which will damage her claims to care about social mobility. A key challenge for Justine Greening is whether she can steer the PM away from this view and hold the line against grammar expansion and the opening of new grammar schools.
The best job in education
Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening have, or have had, the best job in government in my view. Their passion for the job can’t be denied. I just hope that the newest Secretary of State learns from the failures of her predecessors and listens to the experts so we can put education policy on a stable footing, reach across the green benches and work together to tackle the real problems that now exist in education and ensure all children get equal opportunities to succeed.
Lucy Powell is a Labour MP and former shadow education secretary.