Ministerial appointments are a mysterious process. There’s no job advertisement; no person specification; no interview panel ticking boxes and rating each candidate’s suitability; no expectant wait for a letter in the post. As a result, they can turn up some surprises.
Try this for size: how about an accountant at KPMG ending up in charge of schools policy? Ladies and gentleman, meet Nick Gibb.
How does such a thing happen?
A Ministerial appointment is a deal. Those hopeful of an appointment have to cobble together a good-dose of political capital, earned over time by unstinting loyalty to party or leader (or both). Prior experience doesn’t do any harm – either as Shadow Minister or, even better, in the real world – but it’s anything but essential (Danny Alexander, the Lib-Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is an example of this. He has about as much economic or financial experience as you would expect a PR man to have: next to none).
But, does this matter?
Would we have better Government if there was a clearer correlation between real-life experience and Ministerial responsibility?
Or are we better served by Ministers who are able to weigh-up issues coolly and dispassionately, making decisions based on wider interests beyond a particular field?
The answer, surely, is that we need a bit of both. A true Ministerial talent can embody real-life experience combined with a good, analytical brain. But they are few and far between (come back Estelle Morris!).
This Government (like most in living memory) is skewed towards Ministers with no obvious, substantive experience which is directly connected to their Ministerial responsibilities. Of course, there are exceptions (please, please come back Estelle!), but not enough to disprove the rule.
This takes us back to the Conservative Schools Minister. I’d never heard of Nick Gibb until a month ago, when the Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton was given the job. I don’t hold that against him: there’s a whole new batch of political faces to get to know (and love?). But I do wonder why he was picked for the job – what’s the match between 15 years number-crunching at KPMG and the complexity of the classroom?
I’ll give any man (or woman) a chance, but he seems to have contributed little so far.
I expect he is busying himself behind the scenes, but his public pronouncements have so far been limited to a convoluted statement on the primary curriculum , a message on tackling absenteeism which is completely devoid of ideas and that seems about it. Oh, beg pardon, he wrote to Polly Toynbee too, explaining she’d got her wires crossed (I don’t know if Polly replied – Mr Gibb addressed the letter ‘Dear Sir’ so I expect she didn’t bother).
While his reticence is just about understandable (it is early days I suppose), what is really worrying is when someone such as Nick Gibb – with no experience whatsoever of teaching or school management – starts to pronounce on the detail of how teachers should teach. On this front, he has some pretty unequivocal rules – children should be taught in sets, for example, schools should strictly enforce school uniform and reading should be taught using ‘synthetic phonics’. A wish-list would could have been chosen almost entirely at random, it seems.
I will come back to Gibb’s pedagogical ideas in a later blog, but my concern is this: a skilled teacher walks into a school and sees a million different things that are happening to make the school day tick over. Some are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, honed to perfection over countless hours in the classroom but hard to pick up. It explains the myth that some teachers are considered ‘naturals’, when the chances are they have worked tirelessly – through endless trial and error – to become good at what they do.
Someone who knows nothing of schools can walk in and think: ‘ah, this school does well, look at the children’s smart uniforms…I know…every school should have smart uniforms!’ (This, to be clear, is not an argument against uniforms – just a warning against the crude over-simplification of ‘what works’ in schools).
Imagine a parallel world where a Health Secretary – who had previously been, let’s say, a chartered surveyor – takes a glance into a surgical theatre, sees something they like the look of and then starts to wax-lyrical and shape policy based on their half-baked understanding of surgical procedures.
It wouldn’t happen, would it? So, why is education any different?
Perhaps it is time for a teacher to be Schools Minister – now, wouldn’t that be interesting…