Education matters: Let’s question the role of education ministers

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury. - Credit: Archant

There was a time when the position of Secretary of State for Education was a government cul-de-sac, somewhere for faded or jaded politicians to be shunted safely out of harm’s way.

This was pretty much the case through to the mid-1980s.

Of course, there had been various beefy reforms to English education. The 1870 Act established universal schooling for children aged five to fourteen. The 1944 Act aimed to introduce grammar, secondary modern and technical schools. It came to be seen as socially divisive and for the most part was abandoned. Then there was the introduction of comprehensive schools in 1965.

And whilst there were reforming politicians behind all of this legislation – respectively Forster, Butler and Crosland – it was the act rather than the actor that has been remembered.

It wasn’t until the appointment of Kenneth Baker as Education Secretary in 1986 that we began to see the role as one where politicians might leave a personal imprint. Baker’s obvious legacy was ongoing staff development – the eponymous ‘Baker Days’ that infuriated many parents by granting teachers five days of in-service training while requiring children to spend five more days at home.

But he also unleashed other reforms, including the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988. He writes of what he terms ‘my Education Reform Bill’ in his 1993 autobiography, The Turbulent Years. Like so many political memoirs, is a tome of selective memory and overweening pomposity.

But it gives a record of an education change that went mostly unnoticed at the time by those working outside schools, but which is now playing out alarmingly amid the current government’s obsession with academisation. It’s all about money.

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One of Baker’s most significant reforms to education was financial. We have to remind ourselves that until the mid-1980s decisions about pretty much everything in schools – from the number of staff to when the corridors might be repainted – was made in county hall by what we then called local education authorities.

Baker devolved money to headteachers so that they could decide how to spend their funding. It was an initiative initially called LFM – Local Financial Management – though inevitably, perhaps, in those days of sharp austerity, it was nicknamed by many in education as ‘less ****ing money’.

Nevertheless, despite some initial sniping, this was a reform that transformed school leadership, giving us the real tools to make real decisions that could improve our schools.

The principle was a good one. The idea was to help heads to benefit their students and staff.

Which is why some recent headlines leave some of us concerned that finances rather than education principles may be driving some decisions.

Last week we learned that last year alone Norfolk academies paid out more than £500,000 in severance pay to staff. We see some academies toppling into serious deficit and laying off teachers.

Meanwhile the Commons Select Committee on Education were told that one academy headteacher earned almost £400,000 in a year by running a private business on the school site as well as taking his salary.

We know that some academy chains appear to have highly paid executives driving smart cars between the various academies they are rescuing. One erstwhile boss of a large academy chain once boasted to me about how it was easy to make millions by ‘joining up back office functions’.

I have no idea what that means, and I don’t criticise any of it if it’s in the interest of the children in our schools.

All I know is that there’s likely to be less cash in the future. I know also that most of us came into education to work with young people, not to play at being business executives.

It might just be that the combination of a well-intentioned education reform in the past combined with a zealous drive to create academies in the present has redefined the values system in some of our schools and academies.

It sometimes feels as if money, not education, is what matters most.