A sexism row has erupted between Nicky Morgan and a headteacher after she was quizzed on the balance of power in her department.
The education secretary accused Simon Kidwell, headteacher of Hartford Manor Primary School, of sexism when she was asked if it was in fact Nick Gibb who ran the Department for Education, rather than her.
Gibb, the schools minister, has ministerial responsibility for curriculum reform and has frequently appeared as a proxy for Morgan at events where curriculum and assessment matters have been at the top of the agenda.
He also took Morgan’s place at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference earlier this year, where he discussed problems with assessment at length during a Q&A with journalist Gerard Kelly.
And it was Gibb, not Morgan, who spoke most prominently about the scrapping of the controversial reception baseline tests and led the government’s response to the leaking and subsequent cancellation of the key stage 1 spelling and grammar test earlier this month.
Following a speech which was at times punctuated with heckling from the audience, Morgan was asked by Kidwell about whether she would think again about the change from “best fit” to “secure fit” exam standards, which it is claimed has had a negative effect on dyslexic pupils.
Morgan said she was not minded to make a change, but when asked by Kidwell if it was in fact Gibb who was running her department, Morgan replied: “I’m not going to dignify that sexist remark with a comment.”
It is not the first time Morgan has faced questions over who was in charge at Sanctuary Buildings. The education secretary reacted angrily to reports in her early days in the job that her predecessor Michael Gove was still running things behind the scenes.
As minister for women and equalities, Morgan has on several occasions voiced her opinions on sexism, and made headlines last June when she criticised Sir Tim Hunt for his remarks about women in science.
But Kidwell’s question has been defended by Russell Hobby, the union’s general secretary, who said he didn’t think it was sexist
“It was a concern around who is making different decisions,” he said. “I think that people are just frustrated that they don’t feel they are being listened to, so they wonder who they need to go and speak to about it.
“[Gibb] does make decisions on assessment and curriculum, so it’s not an unreasonable expectation. I don’t think he’s running the department.”
Morgan also faced an emotional plea from Andy Mellor, the headteacher of St Nicholas C of E Primary in Blackpool, who said there was “more anger in the profession now than ever before”, and said good and outstanding LA-maintained schools should not be forced to convert into academies.
And she faced shouts of “rubbish” several times, and at one point was told loudly by one delegate: “you’re not listening”.
The heated session has compounded fears among union leaders about a breakdown in the relationship between the government and their members. The NAHT has traditionally been a more moderate voice than other teaching unions, willing to engage regularly and constructively with government over matters of concern.
During his vote of thanks to Morgan, Hobby admitted he was worried about the “gap that’s widening between the profession and the government”, a gap which may now be even wider after Morgan left Birmingham’s ICC conference venue quickly this morning after an uncomfortable hour, ducking further questions from heads and journalists.
But Hobby defended his members’ treatment of Morgan during her speech and interview.
“I knew it would be a tough gig, this one. I think they asked good questions, I think they were challenging questions, and they were responding to what she said and expressing their views. I don’t think it was done in a discourteous fashion.”
He said teachers felt they were “not being listened-to” by the government, and had raised legitimate concern.