This is an historic and unprecedented moment for education in England. It appears we now have a full set of organisations representing schools, colleges, teachers, school leaders and parents in England that have recently passed motions of no confidence in our secretary of state for education and his government’s education policies – the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Association of Schoolteachers/Union of Women Teachers, and, since last Saturday, the National Association of Head Teachers. Those who represent Early Years have strongly indicated their lack of confidence in the proposals for childcare, as has Mumsnet. Last Saturday the Guardian published an article by Sir Ken Robinson that strongly criticised Mr Gove’s lack of understanding of pedagogy and creativity, which also said, “Gove seems to think he can improve schools by demeaning teachers.”
So that really is a full set of the most powerful voices in education? Er – not quite. Our list doesn’t include the Association of School and College Leaders – previously known as the Secondary Heads Association.
Mike Griffiths, the serving ASCL President, and Headmaster of Northhampton School for Boys, has been doing the rounds of the other unions’ conferences and it’s clear he’s not a bit impressed by their ‘militancy’ and their motions of no confidence. He wrote this in his ASCL blog:
Despite an understandable unhappiness with many aspects of government policy, a simple reality should dawn on all unions – including my own! The government has a democratic mandate. As such, we must work with government, and persuade them of the error of their ways, where appropriate.
Mr Gove will cheerfully ignore every single one of the resolutions passed at the conferences. Will he be afraid of the challenges, the motions of no confidence? Not a bit. I suspect he was smiling throughout, knowing that the newspaper headlines would make teachers look a rebellious bunch of employees who should be lucky they have a job and pension at all!
Hey ho! The games people play!
Notice that Mr Griffiths, who is probably well in tune with ASCL members’ thinking (since they voted him into the presidency) talks about an “understandable unhappiness” with government policy. Presumably many of his colleagues are understandably unhappy. What they, and he, won’t do, however, is put their heads above the parapet and publicly declare their unhappiness – certainly not in terms of a declaration of no confidence.
Perhaps they see themselves as “apolitical” and therefore prefer to work quietly “behind the scenes” – to make friends and influence people. Throughout recent history this has been the prefered tactic of secondary school leaders, which is why it was such a pleasant surprise when the Heads Roundtable came together through Twitter to publicly take issue with Mr Gove and his policies.
This particular game has now become far too serious to be thought of as a game at all – not that the rest of us have ever seen it as that. If anyone is playing a game here then it’s the likes of Mr Griffiths and the ASCL, who seem to be afraid of being seen as confrontational radicals or even militants.
To begin with, this statement is political: “The government has a democratic mandate. As such, we must work with government . . . ” In the case of Mr Gove and his colleagues, you are either with them or against them, since they clearly listen to no-one who doesn’t share their views, and as Mr Griffiths so perceptively says, “will cheerfully ignore every single one of the resolutions . . . ”
Secondly, it’s not even true that the government has a democratic mandate for its radical policies. For the first time in recent history we have a cobbled together government consisting of two parties that failed to mention in either of their manifestos any of the policies which they later brought forward. This may be how our “parliamentary democracy” operates, but it’s not the same thing as having a democratic mandate. They may be a legitimate government, but no-one voted for their policies on education since no-one knew what they would be.
As far as most of us are concerned, the people who represent ASCL now have a duty to publicly declare where they stand on the issues that have caused everyone else to lose confidence in this government – instead of moving anonymously in and out of ‘consultations’ and keeping very quiet about their discussions and efforts to “persuade them of the error of their ways, where appropriate”.
It’s appropriate now to be seen to be opposing Mr Gove and his policies, his ways of operating and his arrogant stance on ‘reforms’. Professional solidarity and effectiveness requires this to happen.
The essential problem here is that the ASCL is somewhat split in terms of its members and their support for the ‘reforms’. We know for a fact that a great many secondary heads have no problem at all with high stakes tests and league tables, since they’ve become quite adept at playing that particular game, and have earned considerable brownie points and indeed salary increases as a result of playing it quite capably. We also know that many of these heads would be strongly opposed to the abolition of 16+ exams, which the CBI and others have called for. We’ve even heard at first hand the head of a secondary school wonder aloud how she could have her “performance” “managed” if there were no 16+ exams. Clearly the targets and the exams are there for the benefit of headteachers – not the students, or even the CBI and the employers.
There are other heads of secondary schools, however, who understand that high stakes tests and league tables have been the death of real education in many instances, and the cause of much distress and the deterioration of wellbeing for thousands of pupils and teachers alike, to say nothing of the many headteachers who have become physically and sometimes mentally sick as a result of the pressures of the academic rat race. Anthony Seldon of Wellington College is one high-profile school leader who has consistently and publicly complained about the damaging effects of over-testing and over-examining (whilst supporting Mr Gove in other areas), and the head of Eton College, Tony Little, has expressed his support for ‘holistic’ education as well as the abolition of 16+ exams.
So come on, you ASCL folks – tell us where you, or the majority of you, stand on the big issues in education, and on your confidence in Mr Gove. After all, your salaries are paid from public funds, in most cases. Enough of your “working with government” and your “persuasion” – which actually isn’t. Stand tall, speak out and stop playing games. The public has a right to know where you stand, as do our young people – your students.
- Quite a Day for Education (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Easter Conferences and Votes of No Confidence (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Michael Gove attacks headteachers over no confidence vote (telegraph.co.uk)