My 19th Secretary of State and Why That Matters

It could so easily be a joke that in just over three decades in school I have served with 19 Secretaries of State for Education. It probably is a joke, or at least a result of unusual political circumstance, that there have been four this year: one of whom served overnight and another during the school summer holiday. But to see why this matters, a different statistic is more helpful. The A level students leaving this summer had begun school in Reception some 13 years earlier and they have seen 14 Secretaries of State.

Before we go further, let me clear I am not against innovation and new ideas in education. We are a profession and must be research led. The science of learning and the mind has developed exponentially in the last decade or so and that must impact the classroom. So have technology, social structures and the pastoral challenges brought into school from wider society.

However, I am very much against the endless churn of structural big picture change.

I know why it happens as each of those political leaders, frightened of being seen to tinker and not deal with the big issues, wishes to get to grips with the “real problem”. They also want to “see impact” and set short timescales. What that means is that the all-through curriculum those 5 year olds began in 2009, leading in a well structured way to the end point of schooling at 18 in the then far off 2022, has changed its end point at least 4 times in quite a significant way during the course of the journey. Each time the end point changes then the start at age 5 does as well, yet almost doomed, in an endless loop, to never reach fruition.

As a very young teacher I was embracing the 17 attainment targets of the then new science curriculum. An older colleague suggested I leave it a few months before spending too much time. I was exasperated – I was young and keen. It turned out they were not only older but wiser. The 17 soon become 5 and then 4 and now, and now there are none really.

Systematic change is beguiling –  let’s just sort things out once and for all. Yet we won’t,  as a few years later we will sort it out again, once and for all. I have come to see that so long as the system is not egregiously silly, and none of the last four or so have been really, it doesn’t matter half as much as we imagine it does. What matters is how we do things in classrooms and schools, day after day, in small ways, making small changes, focused on the pupils.

I once heard a leadership analogy that there were leaders who were landscape gardeners and there were leaders who paid attention to the pruning and hoeing. Both are needed from time to time but please, please let us have a Secretary of State who prefers the hoe to the earth mover.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is the Head of Foundation of Bolton School. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists. Follow at X: @Philip_Britton | View X/Twitter archive | Listen at: Exploring Bolton School | Social Mobility, Leadership & Future School Thinking | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton