Labelling new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, as ‘continuity Gove’, initially seemed a smart move by Labour. But her Conservative Party Conference speech distinctly shifted the rhetoric and left the audience in no doubt that she’s now running her own show.
Gone was the labelling of lefty teachers and union leaders as “the blob”. In came a pledge to spend more time with teachers, listening to them, and trying to figure out how to reduce workload – a commitment never seriously made by any previous government.
The joys of the pledge were slightly undermined when she announced that less time spent on paperwork would instead result in “more time in the classroom” – somewhat forgetting that the main thing that drives teacher workload is the amount of time you spend teaching. Every one hour spent in front of a class needs corresponding time for planning, prepping resources, and marking work.
More time in classrooms equals more paperwork, end of. Hopefully the listening exercise will bring that home quickly.
Still, it was a minor slip in an otherwise pitch-perfect presentation.
As predicted, she used the timeless battle narrative: things were terrible in 2010, over the past four years they’ve become much better, now everything is brilliant, and if we win another term it will be even better.
So far, so political fodder. But then came the killer hooks.
“Labour say they want world class teachers. I say we have world class teachers”
“Try telling that parent they can’t get the good education they want for their child… because we thought it was all a bit too hard”
And then, the biggie. Taking on the idea that the government only cares about academies and free schools, Morgan unequivocally rooted for all educators: “There are around 24,000 schools in England today. And we need to be clear that we value each – and – every – one”
The crowd looked up adoringly at their new friendly edu-sec
Not for she, this favourtism towards one school type or another. Under her watch the education department will worry only about what pupils see as they leave the school gates and head to their futures, she said. “The name they see on the way in” was no longer to be her concern. (Though her later announcement of 35 new free schools and advocacy for more academisation did suggest she is at least a little concerned).
Nevertheless, the crowd looked up adoringly at their new friendly edu-sec. They seem unmoved by the fact she repeated the same untrue statistics about pupil illiteracy as her junior minister did yesterday. They didn’t care that her promises to improve careers advice had no specific policy teeth to them. Or that vocational education policies amounted to little more than the slow-growing ‘Tec Bacc’.
The crowd’s adoration instead seemed to say: Look, she is being nice to teachers and she wants parents to have good choices for their kids – How can you hate on us for that?!
It’s a simple message, and it neatly hides a multitude of uncomfortable complexities. But in politics, simple is what usually sells, and this message was what the electorate have been noisily claiming they wanted to hear. The standing ovation Morgan received after delivering it suggests the message was what the party members wanted to hear too.
Laura McInerney is now the Editor of Schools Week (formerly Academies Week)