Dear Nadhim Zahawi, your big bag of big ideas seems oddly empty | Michael Rosen


Do do you remember that speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest when Prospero’s slave Ariel reports to his master for all the work he has done to capsize the king’s ship? He says he boarded the ship and “fired with astonishment”. One moment he was on the deck, the next in all the cabins, then on the topmast then on the bowsprit, creating “sulphurous roars” and blowing people overboard.

It reminds me of you. I was there last week, hearing you present all your great new ideas on radio and television. You were shooting all over the place. I hope you will forgive me if I express any skepticism about your school’s white paper. You see, people like me who have been parents and watchers of education for almost 50 years don’t shout with joy when a new Secretary of State for Education comes on the scene with another big bag of big ideas which will – of course – raise standards, close the achievement gap, give parents what they want, deal with bad behavior, give everyone a job, level up, simplify school types and help late students.

For most of those 50 years, your party has been in power. If you think education needs to be turned upside down, it’s because you’re dealing with the last time you turned it upside down. Or the time before. Or the time before. What did Kenneth Baker or Michael Gove do that didn’t work? Or what talent or trait of genius do you have that these two giants of educational theory and practice did not have?

I wonder, for example, do you remember the cult of Gove? It worked like this: Gove would announce another big education reform – the ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ or ‘world-class GCSE’ or, of course, ‘free academies and schools’. Your side of the Commons was drooling with joy. Sympathetic newspapers wrote of the great revolution Gove was bringing about. Then, when the big man suddenly left office, his admiring colleagues spoke of how Gove had upended schools, raised standards and broken the stranglehold the local authority mafia had on education.

Work done, surely? But no. It seems that even after 11 years of conservative-led upbringing, we still apparently need Ariel Zahawi to throw even more flashes of Jove. I must therefore confess my astonishment. How about giving another speech next week in which you explain to us parents what your predecessors got wrong that you now need to correct?

Yet your big bag of big ideas seems oddly empty. Aside from the ordinary, mind-numbing stuff about the hours of a school week, one of your great ideas caught my eye. Announcing that all schools must join multi-academy trusts, you said: ‘All the evidence suggests that schools working together in a family of schools … deliver better outcomes for children.’

I don’t expect you to be a specialist in the history of education – although that would be nice – but have you heard of someone called Sir Tim Brighouse? He ran something called the London Challenge (2002-07, when I had several children in London schools). Do you know what Brighouse has set up? The schools work together. It was a huge success and teachers are still talking about it. Brighouse would have been the man to advise on a nationwide rollout of the program.

This was not to be the case. Instead, the Conservatives’ preferred model for schools, as espoused by Gove, was for them to compete for pupils, teachers and facilities through the vicious instrument of rankings. The huge assessment apparatus, which could and should have been designed to help students, is more about proving that one school is better than another. And yet, this is precisely the model you stick to: demanding even more academies, praising high schools – thus depriving neighboring schools of high-achieving students. And yet you howl praises for the families of the schools.

One thing that can be said for sure is that within a few years, someone sitting in your seat will be giving the same speech as you, using the same cliches. “Closing the achievement gap…good standards…bad behavior…blah blah blah…passionate about education…I went to school, you know…I want that every school be a high school…level up…blah blah blah…” When is an education secretary going to figure out what to really do?

Sincerely, Michael Rosen


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