I can’t claim actually to have known former Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Yes, I sat in the audience at some conferences he spoke at. I was on the side-lines at a couple of meetings and a dinner where I glimpsed first-hand his well-known mix of the witty and the unctuous. And he once stepped out of a lift in the unglamorous basement of a west London hotel, pointed at me, and said ‘It’s Geoff Barton, isn’t it?’. Then he turned and walked away.
None of this amounts to knowing Michael Gove.
But when his departure from the Department of Education was announced, back in July 2014, I decided to send him one of my custom CD mixes as an understated farewell gift. As visitors to our school know, I occasionally inflict a compilation of uplifting and sad songs, plus cheesy ‘Geoffy B’ jingles, as part of a desperate throw-back to my childhood ambition to be Radio One’s next breakfast DJ.
Whether my small musical gesture of goodwill ever reached the departing Secretary of State, I have no idea. But the CD wasn’t returned in the post and hasn’t surfaced on eBay.
So, no, I didn’t know Michael Gove. But I did know what he stood for. I knew what his ambitions for schools were. We all did. However strenuously we disagreed with many of the approaches and policies he unleashed, we couldn’t avoid being aware of his overarching belief that education liberates, and that the education world needed to intensify its ambition to liberate those whose backgrounds, family finances or postcode would serve as a limiter on a child’s aspirations.
Now, with the aftermath of the Gove project smouldering gently behind us, we stand gazing out at another year: 2016. And it already looks as if we’re in for one of unprecedented of change in education – just as we were last year and the year before.
We brace ourselves for seismic changes to qualifications at pretty much every level. KS2 tests will be different. GCSEs will be different. A/S and A-levels will be different.
Some of the big beasts of the current educational jungle are due to leave the forest – Glenys Stacey leaves her role overseeing the exams regulator, Ofqual. Sir Michael Wilshaw will step down from Ofsted later in the year.
Meanwhile a new national Schools Commissioner, in the shape of the well respected Sir David Carter, takes up post at a time when there’s a government determination to see every school an academy or free school.
That’s just some of the stuff going on beyond the school gates – the ritualistic machinations beloved of policy nerds and the Twitterati. In reality, most of it will hardly impinge on most of us most of the time. We’ve quite enough to be getting on with in our own schools and classrooms – some of it extra work provoked by the relentless thrashing-about by a government that too often confuses change with improvement; and some of it simply the ever-intensifying workload felt by all who work in an education system which is being flogged to its limits.
Which brings us to our current Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, the person who oversees that system.
I have never met Ms Morgan. But, in contrast with Mr Gove, I have no idea what she stands for. Apart from occasional exhortations on building character (a good thing, we gather) or teaching children that our roots are as a Christian nation (pretty unarguable), I’m not sure what we could ascribe to our Education Secretary as a defining philosophy, vision, or non-negotiable point of principle.
Sure – there’s a new Education Act in the offing. This may provide something of a route-map. But so far it’s sounding as if the only actual ambition is to make a reality of the Prime Minister’s determination to see every school in England an academy.
And in my book that’s hardly a vision. Instead it’s a lot of structural tinkering built on a decidedly unproven assumption that academies are by definition better than the kind of schools which in most countries would be seen as the norm – local community schools.
So if academisation really is the big idea, no wonder we feel deflated. It misses the point that what matters most in education is, quite simply, the quality of teaching and learning.
And, as the Scripture tells us, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’.
Which is why I’m determined to keep ignoring all those who think my job is anything to do with academy conversion, takeovers of other schools, business plans and boards of directors. It’s all a huge distraction from the important stuff.
I’m convinced that my role is simply to create a culture where we can recruit more great teachers, help them develop, make sure they can learn from each other, and leave them in peace to do their best to build the skills and knowledge of the next generation of young people.
For that, we owe it to our teachers to enable them to focus on the classroom whilst as school leaders we protect them from the swirling madness of external initiatives and political wacky wheezes.
So a key part of our role in the coming year, I’d suggest, is maintaining the confidence to do what matters most in our schools, for our students, for our communities, and not to let ourselves be distracted by anything that isn’t going to help a teacher in our school to teach better or a student to learn more effectively.
How compellingly simple, principled and unarguable is that?
Let’s make 2016 the year of great teaching.
Geoff Barton is Headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, and a NET Leading Thinker.