Dear Nicky Morgan,
I should probably start by confessing that I’m not a Conservative voter – not even one of those ‘shy Tories’ I’ve heard a lot about these past few days. Since the results were announced on Friday of the much anticipated #GE2015, I have worked through feelings of denial and anger. I’m probably somewhere in the depression stage but I know I need to move on to acceptance or else the next five years could be really quite bleak.
So, Nicky, I accept we have a problem (you probably don’t see it is a problem but to me the problem is that we have a Conservative majority government). I, along with the rest of the country, have to accept that this is the way things are and will be until 2020. We’d better try and make the best of it. In that spirit I decided that I’d start by writing you this letter.
The entire teaching profession were so busy celebrating Gove’s departure last July that I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t really think all that much about his replacement. Anybody, surely, was better than Gove? Furthermore, with the election looming, we didn’t know whether to settle in with you. But you’ve been doing the job of Education Secretary for 10 months and therefore your re-appointment by Cameron yesterday makes sense.
My assessment of your first 10 months would be that they were pretty quiet – certainly quieter than the infuriating din of Gove’s time in office. However, you did do something novel and ask for our views (tick) and you’ve said that a priority for you is to continue to work on what teachers told you in the Workload Challenge (double tick). It would have been an even better start, though, if you hadn’t suggested teenagers should steer clear of the arts and humanities…
As you return to your role as Education Secretary, I thought I might offer you some advice.
Listen to teachers
It’s a scary and damning statistic that 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years. This has to stop. Workload is certainly one of the causes, and you’ve made a good start by listening to our ideas on that front, but there are other reasons why teachers are feeling compelled to leave a profession they trained hard to get in to. Get to the bottom of what’s causing the exodus and do something about it. Research has shown that the quality of teaching has the biggest impact on pupil achievement so focus your attention on retaining your best asset – us.
Show that you respect the profession, an informed and passionate lot, by listening to what teachers have to say. Make opportunities to meet with teachers and hear their opinions on your ideas before they become policy and don’t be shy about spreading the news that said policies have been informed by these discussions. We’ll appreciate it.
Get some relevant work experience
Everybody I speak to has an opinion on what we should do to improve education. This opinion is usually largely, or solely, based on personal experience. We’ve all had an education and depending upon what our school experience was like we think we know what makes schooling either good or bad. Truthfully, this isn’t a sound basis for making comments or suggestions about the current system.
A quick look online tells me that you went to a fee paying school. I’m not about to start criticising you for having parents who decided to opt you out of the Comprehensive system but I would dare to suggest that you don’t have much experience of what school life is like for the vast majority of the population. With a career as a corporate lawyer you also don’t have any relevant professional experience but this is not all that unusual for our Education Secretaries (Michael Gove was a journalist; Alan Johnson a postman).
But whilst you can’t change your schooling or your previous career you could do something now to improve your kudos with teachers: get some relevant work experience. Spend some time in schools shadowing pupils and teachers, observing lessons and experiencing the challenges that are facing us first hand: sweeping curriculum changes, workload and spending cuts. I will be so bold as to say that I’d happily have you come and join me for a week or two. I think you’d find it illuminating.
Keep your promises
This seems an obvious one but if you’re going to make promises, stick to them. I’ve been teaching nearly a decade and there hasn’t been a single year without some significant change to which I’ve had to adapt. As a profession we feel that we’re constantly running to catch up with the changes and it is, frankly, exhausting. You’ve now promised a year’s notice for any significant changes to qualifications and the curriculum. Stick to that promise and let us catch our breath.
I hope that you read this letter and I hope that it gives you some pause for thought. I wish you all the best of luck; I think that if you are able to listen to teachers you will be taking a step in the right direction of having a positive impact over the coming years.