It has been an interesting period to have Michael with us. He has brought lots of enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Introducing free schools, enabling primary schools to become academies, reworking the accountability system for secondary schools and giving heads and governors more say in the performance management of their staff all demonstrated a boldness of thinking. His passionate commitment to social mobility and his espousal of the Pupil Premium were also widely welcomed.
However, Michael must learn to think harder about his plans before rushing to implement them. For example, some of the problems of the helter-skelter expansion of academy chains could have been avoided if he had adopted the checks and balances which his colleague, Lord Nash, has introduced. Free schools would have caused less dissent and represented better value for money if they had always been linked to the pressing demand for school places. Primary academy status from the start should only been available on a cluster of schools rather than individual school basis. School Direct has a lot to commend it as a way of giving schools a greater stake in recruiting and training teachers but its implementation has been fraught with difficulties. What is more in each case Michael was warned in advance about the problems.
Michael rightly challenged us to raise the bar in terms of standards and attainment but he failed to get a balance between equipping students with the skills as well as the knowledge they need to be rounded and successful 21st century citizens.
Although Michael comes from a Conservative family he found it hard to resist the temptation for the state to control everything. From the curriculum, to the content of examinations, to deciding which free schools should be allowed to open, to dictating which schools must become academies Michael has demonstrated a centralising and authoritarian streak. Agencies – such as the National College for School Leadership – that represented an independent voice in education improvement – have been emasculated. Michael’s treatment of Baroness Morgan and the handling of the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations called into question Ofsted’s independence. This statist stance is all the more ironic given Michael’s criticisms of his predecessors.
Michael was very committed to introducing a school system where headteachers and groups of schools led and drove improvement – a self sustaining and improving system was his aim. Academy chains, teaching schools and the expansion of national, local and specialist leaders of education were the vanguard in driving this change. But his failure to incentivise or recognise collaborative working through the inspection and accountability systems and his refusal to enforce partnership on outstanding converter academies undermined his strategic goal. In addition Michael’s stubborn refusal to countenance any significant role for local authorities in steering and joining up the different bits of the school improvement landscape, coupled with the creation of a parallel school commissioner system for overseeing academies, has left us with a fragmented system for securing progress for every pupil in every school. In short Michael tried very hard and produced lots of work. But overall his actions lacked the strategic coherence necessary to deliver his declared objective.
On a personal level Michael has demonstrated considerable personal charm. This skill will stand him in good stead in his new role but he must resist the temptation to patronise those he does not value or agree with. His characterisation of school governors as sherry drinking, cake-slicing, Kumbaya-singing local worthies was not only inaccurate but gratuitously (and unnecessarily) offensive. Such an attitude can be symptomatic of the terminal political disease that comes to afflict many senior politicians – hubris. The political world will be a duller place if Michael succumbs to this condition too soon.