I have an admission to make. I feel a small amount of sympathy for Stephen Twigg. This is not a trick or anything, it is genuine sympathy. Also a little bit of understanding for the position he is in. I know this won’t necessarily make me popular, but, hey ho, that’s just tough. So why do I feel this way?
Firstly, understand the nature of the man he is up against. Seven months ago the ministers in the DfE were reshuffled. One of those losing their job has just given a long interview to PoliticsHome in which he comments about his former boss:
“He’s not spoken to me since the day before the reshuffle, bizarrely,” Loughton reveals. “One of the most strange things, and it’s not just me, I think, is that I have not had any conversation, I’ve not been approached to have a chat, I’ve not even had a letter to say ‘thanks for everything you’ve done’, which is a bit odd. Hence my generally being perplexed about exactly the reasons behind me being defenestrated.”
Don’t know about you, but I think that’s a bit strange. But it wasn’t just him of course, virtually the whole department was changed (apart from the one who tried to resign and failed, of course). And I think that’s a bit strange as well.
There is limited support for any of the reforms brought forward within the schools sector, particularly within the professions. But the SoS just ploughs on. There are questions raised over the international comparisons used as a rationale for the reforms. But the SoS just ploughs on. The Information Commissioner calls the department out over the use of Gmail accounts. But the SoS just ploughs on. FoI request after FoI request is ignored preventing anyone holding the department to account. There appears to be little the SoS and his allies are not able to do, both openly using his charm and guile or utilising the black arts of politics as described here.
So there are two problems. One is that of challenging the SoS as he “ploughs on”. Here is the difficulty with that. The arguments against his simplistically put proposals (“we want to make schools better”, “we want children to learn stuff, what is wrong with that” etc) are more complex than our televisual media like to carry. They are not soundbite arguments, although the Govian contentions are. It is very difficult to make the arguments against without sounding defensive or negative (and I agree that could be seen a weakness of the arguments or the arguer, even though I know it isn’t). As for the printed press. Well, I’m sorry to say that large swathes of it are so in thrall to one of its own that I have given up on them properly holding him to account. So any attempt by Mr Twigg to enter this fray is difficult. In this area I have less sympathy for him because he should be doing better than he is. I suspect that a couple of his most recent predecessors in the role would have done better here. But that may well be wishful thinking.
The second problem is more significant and where most of my sympathy lies.
The constant cry is “What will Labours education policies be?”. In most every other area of policy it is not so difficult to see where the system will be in 2 years time. That is, what will the starting point of the policy need to be. In education that is currently impossible. The reforms come thick and fast. I have no idea what the school system will look like in two years time. Anyone who says they do is engaging in some pretty hefty guesswork. For example. As it stands it just might be possible for the next administration (if it is not a continuation of the current one) to row back from academisation of primaries. However, what if another 20% or 30% of primaries convert. then what. If we have 80% of secondaries converted by 2015 what should an incoming SoS do? Maybe the best thing to do will be to convert the rest. Will we have a new curriculum or will the consultation be so negative (and listened to) in such a way that it is delayed. If it is not delayed would anyone want it to be changed by a new administration? Even if everyone hates the policies will there really be an appetite for more change? The possibility exists that the best thing that any incoming administration could do is to properly implement all the policies that they have been left with.
So perhaps at this stage the best thing that Mr Twigg can do about policy is to say nothing.
That’s why I have a small amount of sympathy with him.