Geoff Barton: Whatever politicians decide, we can still make a difference in the classroom

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photo: PA Wire/Neil Hall

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photo: PA Wire/Neil Hall - Credit: PA

Whenever I watch Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on the news, I wonder who advises him to wear that NHS lapel badge that he always so proudly brandishes. He wears it with the smugness of a two-time winner of a Blue Peter badge.

Did some fresh-faced political adviser suggest that it would give him credibility with the public? Are we expected to look at the politician, note the badge, and subliminally reassure ourselves that the National Health Service is safe in his hands?

Or is it designed as a two-fingered gesture to the junior doctors to suggest that Mr Hunt, more than them, cares about Britain’s patients?

Whoever made the decision, it’s a symbol of how calculating our political system can seem. The badge is there as a symbol of some kind. It’s just that its actual meaning depends on who we are and what we are looking for. We tend to see what we want to see.

The appearance of the Health Secretary leads to a bigger political question. What are secretaries of state actually for? It is, when you think of it, an odd system. We place in charge of the big departments of government – health, defence, prisons – people who in general have had no experience of running such things. Indeed, often they have had no experience of running anything.


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It’s why we have people overseeing education who have never marked a set of exercise books, planned a lesson, or earned their credentials doing a wet break duty on November.

And yet they make decisions about the kinds of qualifications young people should sit, the curriculum they should follow, even the set-texts they might study.

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That still strikes me as remarkable.

The counter-argument is presumably that without these ‘outsiders’ at the helm, then health, defence, education and suchlike would be left to the mercy of the professions. We teachers, in other words, would make all our decisions based on overweening self-interest rather than the needs of our students and parents.

So it is we have Nicky Morgan as Education Secretary. She is a lawyer by background. Nick Gibb – once a chartered accountant – is Schools Minister.

Between them they wield a fair amount of clout over what happens in our schools. It’s probably, in truth, less clout than they imagine, because the reality of any school classroom is that it’s the teacher who makes the decisions.

Politicians can mandate a curriculum, introduce performance-related pay, and tinker endlessly with league tables and other performance measures. But ultimately what matters most is what any teacher on any given day with any class chooses to teach. It’s the people on the ground who matter – the teacher and their pupils.

And there’s still a surprising amount of freedom and creativity in every classroom.

Which is why I wish that our political leaders would see their role a bit more broadly. I wish they would see that the most important job they could perform is to talk up rather than talk down our education system. I wish they would see beyond the short-term parochial obsession with their own fleeting reforms and instead celebrate what matters most: getting more great graduates to choose to become teachers.

This, ultimately, is all that matters.

Teaching remains a noble, inspiring, rewarding profession. The truth is we need more great teachers, and we need them now.

The greatest sense of mission our political leaders should have is helping us to achieve that end, rather than firing off soundbites and polishing up more whacky wheezes.

Getting more great teachers into all our schools – now that would be a political legacy worthy of a badge.

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