The late and unlamented Michael Gove had the repulsive Brexiteer Dominic Cummings as his SPAD. Nicky Morgan's SPAD was the sweaty Jonathan Simons. I don't think Justine Greening has one yet but Theresa May certainly does - bearded, balding Nick Timothy.
We tend to assume that Secretaries of State for Education actually care about the subject and occasionally know something about it or at least make a minimal effort to inform themselves about it. I really don't think they do. When you read the White and Green Papers published under their reigns and compare them to the ideas of their SPADS, you often notice a very strong correlation.
For example, "Primary Focus: The next stage of improvement for primary schools in England", written by Annaliese Briggs and Jonathan Simons (September 2014) advocated mass academisation as the only solution for the nation's schools. Once Nicky Morgan was Education Secretary she published her ill-fated White Paper "Educational Excellence Everywhere" which - guess what? - advocated forced mass academisation as the only solution for the nation's schools. Which, unsurprisingly, met mass resistance and was quickly dropped.
Until very recently Nick Timothy was a director of New Schools Network pressure group which was a fervent proponent of free schools. He is a passionate believer in selective education. 77 new free schools were recently announced and then the laughingly-titled "Schools that work for everyone" Green Paper came out and guess what? It advocated the expansion of selective education as the only solution for the nation's schools. It has already met with fierce opposition from a very broad spectrum of critics, including Gove and Morgan. I can't see it surviving, somehow.
Going back to Cummings, who we can all thank for leading the Vote Leave campaign and creating the appalling mess we're all now in, he too worked at the New Schools Network for a while and set up his own free school. Working as Mr Nasty behind the reportedly charming Michael Gove, he developed a reputation as being "either mad, bad or brilliant - and probably a bit of all three" (Patrick Wintour) and a "career psychopath" (David Cameron). It is harder to detect his influence on Gove's 2010 White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" because it came out remarkably quickly after the Coalition election victory and has Gove's fingerprints all over it. To be fair to Gove, which hurts me physically and mentally, his White Paper is a model of clearly argued, coherent policy, especially compared to Morgan's and the new Green Paper. That does, I think, qualify as faint praise and is a measure of how far we've fallen as a nation.
Are we seeing a pattern here? I make a point of reading the education papers published by various Think Tanks, most of which, frustratingly, tend to be right wing. What seems to me to characterise them is that they are often written by people who have no serious or deep experience of a wide range of schools and therefore never spot the flaws in their glistening new ideas which would be obvious to anyone who has worked in the real education system for a few years.
In their enthusiasm to come up with something radical and new, they are also very cavalier with their research findings (including "self-reporting", for example, as a supposedly valid approach to data collection) and sample sizes. The very recent "Academy Chains Unlocked" (published by Reform) bases its radical arguments on a survey of the Chief Executives of Academy Chains - a somewhat self-interested group, I would suggest. At no point does it say clearly that the number of usable responses they received (66) represents a mere 2% of all academy chain CEOs (3064) but they are happy to develop their arguments on the basis of a pathetically tiny "evidence base".
"Academy Chains Unlocked" has already been overtaken by events - the reintroduction of selective schools, so will probably sink without trace. But at the same time a new army of academy zealots has emerged, fighting for the Gove-Morgan-Cameron-Osborne vision of mass academisation (see this schools week article). Never mind "Game of Thrones" - this is starting to look like the real battle of the bastards.
Of course, people working in real schools are too busy or too knackered to plough through the nonsense produced by too many Think Tanks, so they don't receive the robust challenge they deserve and their sparkly authors tend to get promoted to SPAD status, as if publishing a fantasy were evidence of clear political thinking and some kind of valuable wisdom. Education Secretaries unsullied by real experience or understanding of education welcome them with open arms, encourage them to force their untested ideas on education policy and then, too late, realise that they know nothing and now have egg all over their Ministerial face.
It's a repeating pattern. I hope that Justine Greening, the supposed Education Secretary, has noticed this and does something to avoid repeating the same mistakes, for her sake, but more importantly for the sake of our poor schoolkids. Then again, Theresa's in charge of education policy, isn't she? Or is it Nick Timothy?
I think we should be told.
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