Earlier this week, on an innocuous phone call, I vocalised what I realised I had been thinking for a while; it's time to get rid of the Department for Education. In the immortal words of Orange Juice, "Rip it up and start again". The government as a whole has not had a good Covid but No. 10 and the DfE are the bottom of of a particularly sticky pile escaped, perhaps only, by the treasury and Rishi Sunak.
One of my colleagues asked me yesterday, "What would be worse if the DfE ceased to exist tomorrow?" Neither of us could think of a single thing and that is why it is time for a reboot. By releasing this evening at 8pm on a Bank Holiday weekend their latest guidance, and then at 9.30pm amending their previous guidance, they have jumped their own blame shifting shark.
The lion's share of the work of getting children back into schools during Covid has been done by Multi Academy Trusts, Local Authorities and by schools themselves. Covid has starkly revealed that government and the DfE in particular no longer even understand, let alone have any control over, what goes on day-to-day in most schools. It has been revealed as the most cavalier of absentee landlords who has let the entire building rot without realising or caring. It is clear that it cannot be shaken out of its self-defensive and bureaucratic torpor. Education needs to be completely reimagined from first principles.
Whatever replaces the DfE needs to re-learn and re-examine the system for which it is accountable; so that when it speaks it does so with an earned authority. It needs to listen to the profession and give the impression that it cares in order to rebuild a modicum of trust without which it will achieve nothing. It needs to invest in its own people and trust them so that they can speak truth to power, when power needs to be told it is talking out of its arse. It will be helped greatly if it refrains from issuing guidance without first asking itself, "How will this help children and schools?". Then and only then when it has an actual understanding of what goes on in schools and the spaces between them (because the education system is much much more than just the sum total of schools) coupled with an informed, motivated, self-confident and self-critical staff can it think about redesigning structures of accountability, which are its current sole obssession. The fixation with accountability is easy to explain; if you have someone to blame for failure, you don't actually have to do anything difficult or expensive. But we should aspire to more for our children.
I have written here and elsewhere about the pernicious consequences of the fragementation of our education system over the last decade, which has bordered on vandalism. But the gap between education policy makers and practioners must be addressed as a matter of national importance. Society is formed at the gates of primary schools but teachers can no longer bear the burden of maintaining a civil society on their own. I
Any half decent school improvement professional will tell you that all successful schools prioritise their children and familes and most failing schools prioritise their senior leadership and staff. The first of the seven Nolan Principles is "Selflessness" and yet I would be amazed if a member of the current government or indeed any preceding government could spell that let alone live it. Governments prioritise the pursuit of power. Most schools prioritise the wellbeing of their children and families.
Who would you rather trust?