Chris McGovern: Absorbed by the ‘Blob’... education chief’s nightmare

WE have become used to the sad spectacle of the homeless, begging money from us as we pass through city streets that, for them, never will be paved with gold. Perhaps Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, skipped over one as she entered her new home at the Department for Education in Great Smith Street, London. If so, it might just have been the inspiration for her new initiative to improve our schools.

It consists of sending out a begging letter, under the “Conservatives” banner, asking recipients if they can give her 20 quid to improve the education service. “Every child deserves a great education and the chance to get on in life… donate £20 today,” she pleads.

In some ways, her bizarre letter is a statement of confidence in what has been achieved by the current Government in terms of education. It assures us that “children have the best teachers”, that a plan is in place “to restore discipline and improve standards” and that “a record number of new schools” are being opened. Pupils these days, it seems, have never had it so good. We should be happy to cash up £20 to keep things going in the right direction.

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This tone of self-congratulation is endemic in the world of education but it rings hollow. The reality is rather less rosy. The UK performs poorly in international league tables of educational attainment, even lagging well behind developing countries such as Vietnam.

Employers complain on a regular basis about too many illiterate, innumerate and unemployable school leavers. Examination grade inflation reached record heights under the coalition Government. Many universities these days have to run remedial courses for undergraduates. Report after report is sounding alarm bells.

The latest, by Save the Children, has announced that around half of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are leaving primary school unable to read even children’s storybooks such as the Harry Potter series.

Interestingly, there is no mention in Nicky Morgan’s letter of the new National Curriculum. Personally, I think it is an improvement on previous versions but it also presents real problems of implementation.

How can Year 5 work be taught if the curriculum for Year 1 to 4 has not already been taught, and so on? And what about the introduction of foreign language teaching from Year 3 (age seven)? It is a great idea but it will have to be taught mostly by teachers who have not got to, or beyond, the abysmal standard of GCSE in a foreign language. As for children having to know their times tables by the age of nine – great, but that is still a couple of years behind many private schools.

Dominic Cummings was special adviser to Michael Gove, the previous Education Secretary. “The [Education] department was a basket case,” he told The Times newspaper in June. “Every half an hour someone would come to me with another disaster. Documents were stolen from desks and leaked to papers; there were determined efforts to drive us out. It was beyond parody. Dysfunction was not the word, bedlam was the word.”

In a new “confession”, only a few days ago, Cummings provided a further insight into the “bedlam” of the DfE. “One evening in Whitehall, an exhausted and enraged senior official spat out at me ‘You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and it’s my job to expel you from the organism’ It was a typical day in the Department for Education.”

Of course, the “immune system”, resistant to change, has won the day. Not only has Dominic Cummings gone, but so has his boss, Michael Gove; sacked in the recent reshuffle.

Gove’s ideas for improving matters proved so toxic with the educational establishment that he had to be shifted. In the end he was beaten. And now we have Nicky Morgan in his place.

Clearly, she is being directed by her political bosses and by the “immune system” of the department, but does she need to be quite so supine in their clutches? Her begging letter is an embarrassment. What is going on? Has she, already, been “taken over” by her officials at the Department for Education? The whole thing has the feel of an episode from Doctor Who. I am beginning to feel a twinge of sympathy for her. She should not have to resort to begging, even if her job is a rotten one and this is a rotten time to be doing it.

Last week’s front page of The Big Issue was headlined “What’s school for?” It is a question that the Education Secretary may well be asking herself.

Any depressed and lonely MP whose own political ambitions may have been thwarted should consider poor Nicky sitting in her office at that entrenched citadel of failure, the Department for Education – trying to negotiate the terms of her government’s surrender to the educational establishment, the so-called “Blob”, and trying to look cheerful about it.

If ever a politician inherited a poisoned chalice, that politician is Nicky Morgan.

Chris McGovern is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.