This is the text of an essay by Michael Bassey that was sent in booklet form to every member of the House of Commons in September 2016

Who should determine national education policy ?


Estelle Morris recently wrote in the Guardian, under the heading “The gaping hole between [Education] ministers’ rhetoric and reality”:

“While politicians talk about the new freedoms they are giving schools, our teachers are working with a curriculum, assessment and pedagogy that are increasingly directed by ministers’ own priorities and prejudices.  … The influence ministers now exercise over what is assessed, how it is assessed and the consequences of the results is so powerful that many teachers feel utterly constrained in the decisions they are free to make.”

Baroness Morris was herself a secretary of state for Education, in 2001-2.  She is right. We should reflect on “ministers’ own priorities and prejudices” and be concerned at how difficult these are to challenge successfully. 

The purpose of this booklet is to suggest that “the gaping hole between ministers’ rhetoric and reality” should be filled by a National Education Council with a research base,  and which can convey to Parliament the stark reality of current schooling, challenge the rhetoric of Ministers and direct the enlightened development of our education system.


The 1944 Education Act, on which R A Butler spent three years in consultation with unions, local authorities and the churches, established, among much else, Central Advisory Councils for England and for Wales. The Act said they were to:

"advise the Minister upon such matters connected with educational theory and practice as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him. … [The Councils] to include persons who have had experience of the statutory system of public education as well as persons who have had experience of educational institutions not forming part of that system."

Reports from the English council known by their chairs as Clarke, Albermarle, Crowther, Newsom, Plowden and others gave ministers and the public deep insight into educational issues, but, in the Education Act of 1986, these councils were abolished when Kenneth Baker was secretary of state and Margaret Thatcher prime minister.

So, since then, on what basis have recent ministers devised policy?

Kenneth Baker, architect of the 1988 Education Reform Act, interviewed in 1997 by researcher Peter Ribbins, cited his own experience of schooling:

"One’s own education, I think, is very important. …  I went to Holy Trinity, a state C of E primary school …  It was a conventional education of a rather old-fashioned sort that was really rather effective.  … The essence of that sort of education was to embed you in the very basic, simple skills of reading and writing and arithmetic.  I remember chanting mathematics tables by heart, learning poetry by heart, doing a lot of writing, spelling, punctuation, and things of that sort.  It was a good education, I have no doubt about that at all."

No mention of creative work, emotional learning, social experience or physical education.  Baker spent most of his secondary education in a prestigious independent school and went on to Oxford.


Surprisingly, of the 14 secretaries of state for education (variously titled) since 1986, 8 were schooled outside the state system and 9 graduated from only two universities: Oxford and Cambridge. None studied science or technology. Their average stay in office has been just over two years. 

Seven of these ministers have been in Labour governments and 7 in Conservative.  All have tried to “make their mark” on the education system and, increasingly, these “marks” have become prescriptive edicts. However today it is the prime minister, Theresa May, not the Education secretary, Justine Greening, who is taking the lead – in seeking to increase grammar school education, notwithstanding strong opposition from most teachers, educationists and others. 

If, as it was with Baker, ministers own experience of education plays a major part in their policy-making, with over half of them schooled outside the state system, and graduating from elite universities, alarm bells should ring. 

Yes, 8 of the 14 people who since 1986 have had overall responsibility for our state schools had not attended state schools themselves.

It is good that the present secretary of state, Justine Greening, was educated at her local comprehensive school and Southampton University, where she studied economics. However her predecessor, Nicky Morgan, was educated in a private independent school for girls (Surbiton High School) and Oxford where she read law: her predecessor, Michael Gove, moved from a state school to a private independent school (Robert Gordon’s College) followed by Oxford where he read English. He initiated major changes in curriculum and assessment in schools.

Ministers have come a long way from the time of George Tomlinson (1947-51) in Clement Attlee’s government who said, “Minister knows nowt about curriculum”, which was a statement of legal fact, not ignorance.  Anthony Crosland (1965-7) in Harold Wilson’s government in similar vein said,

“The nearer one comes to the professional content of education, the more indirect the minister’s influence is, and I’m sure this is right.”


But by the end of the century this level of ministerial abstention was fading.  David Willetts MP, who was Conservative shadow secretary of state for Education, in 1999 complained of the Labour government:

“I see a remorseless flow of regulations, directives, and initiatives which add up to an ambitious centralising agenda. And as I visit schools and LEAs and meet with representatives of the teaching profession and governors, they all say the same thing – that under this Government there is dramatic increase in central intervention and control.”

Today, seventeen years later, under a Conservative administration, the same could still be said.


A YouGov poll of 1020 teachers, commissioned by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and reported in The Observer on 4 October 2015, found “plummeting morale” among school staff. Nearly three-quarters (73%) agreed that current policies for the school curriculum and pupil assessment are narrow and uncreative.

It revealed that 53% of these teachers were thinking of quitting in the next couple of years.  Top reasons given were “volume of workload” (61%) and “seeking a better work/life balance” (57%). 

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said:

“The Government’s current priorities are both wrong and profoundly out of step with the views of teachers. They are the essential cause of the growing problems with teacher supply  This survey demonstrates the combined negative impact of the accountability agenda on teacher workload and morale.”

Two years earlier a similar poll carried out by ComRes, on behalf of the NASUWT, found that 52% of the teachers questioned had “seriously considered” quitting the profession. Chris Keates, general secretary of the union, said:

“The ComRes poll makes clear that whilst teachers love teaching and are passionate about helping pupils to succeed, their ability to be effective is being severely hampered by excessive workload and perverse accountability systems which divert teachers’ time and energy. Teachers’ enthusiasm, morale and energy are being stifled by the Government’s reforms which can only be detrimental to the education of children and young people.”

A third teacher’s union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), says on its website:

“As a nation, we treat our education staff badly.  The profession’s workload has rocketed as its moral has plummeted.  Constant negative criticism by the media and ill-informed comments by politicians have left the profession battered and bruised.”

If teachers’ morale is so low what do parents think about the education of their children?  The Parent Teachers Association UK and Parent Councils UK wrote jointly to Nicky Morgan, then secretary of state, on 10 May 2016. They had asked parents about the White Paper and current education policy. These were the main themes of parental concern:

·     Concern that the wellbeing of children is not being properly considered – is the system and pressure within it risking our children’s happiness, confidence and health?

·     Concern that the current system has taken the fun and pleasure out of learning.

·     Concerns about the national curriculum and assessment framework.  Parents want this reviewed by an independent commission.

·     Discomfort about compulsory academisation with concerns about academy sponsors, their remoteness, the levels of remuneration of senior players, future ownership of public assets and accountability. 

·     Lack of confidence in policy makers: the content of the White Paper and some of the messages expressed after its publication made parents feel that ministers are out of touch.  Parents want those who really understand education and children to be able to make a proper input in its future.


How can school standards, teachers’ morale, young people’s well-being, and parents’ aspirations be raised?

The answer lies in creating a National Education Council with that question as its initial brief. leading to the power to redesign our Education system. It should report annually to Parliament.  Such a Council needs committed members drawn from teachers, other professions, parents, business people, trade unions, academics, and politicians. 

The recent survey by the Education Select Committee into “the purposes of Education” elicited 175 thoughtful responses. There are able people who could form such a Council.

The purpose of this National Education Council should be to examine critically the state of national education and reflect on whether school standards, teachers’ morale, young people’s well-being, and parents’ aspirations are held back by the present system.  If and wherever this is found to be the case the Council should propose ameliorating changes with the expectation that Parliament would adopt them and ministers implement them.


Who should determine national education policy ?


Not Ministers but  Parliament informed by a National Education Council.


Who should implement national education policy ?