No, it’s not quite what it seems.
I am often the first to complain about ill-thought-through policies emerging from the DfE, and have on more than one occasion put the blame squarely at the department’s door for some chaotic implementation or other.
Perhaps its the Christmas spirit in me, or maybe the delirium of the approaching end of term, but I feel that a time has come to sing the praises of those who deserve them: the civil servants.
I remember as a child watching gameshows and the like where candidates announced themselves as “civil servants” and no more was asked – or often a comment made about no further detail being added. In some ways I like to think of them as all having worked for MI5. The life of a civil servant always sounded so exciting.
I’ve come to learn that my impressions may not have been fully-informed. And over the past few years, while I have repeatedly raised my concerns about occurrences at Sanctuary buildings and its outposts, I have learned two things:
- The civil servants I’ve come into contact with at the DfE are – to a man – reasonable, sensible and well-intentioned professionals;
- I couldn’t be a civil servant.
Just in the last few weeks, I have taken part in several Rising Stars conferences on the new national tests, in which representatives from the DfE have presented the department’s latest changes to assessment policy, and then opened themselves up to a barrage (volley? live round?) of questions from an audience. Many in those audiences – professional teachers and school leaders all – share a common frustration with the pace of change, combined with the meandering pace of information provision. Many have disagreements about the direction of policy. Almost all would like the opportunity to direct their questions to the political masters behind it all. But all the while, a polite, knowledgeable and helpful civil servant provides what information they can, while never once raising any personal viewpoint on the matter themselves.
That has been my experience of the good people who work inside the DfE. While you or I might have strongly-held views on what should be done -and I certainly make no qualms about expressing those views – the kindly civil servants within the department merely do their best to translate government policy (driven by the politicians) into practice for the system.
Can you imagine having to make every announcement by Mr Gibb or Ms Morgan into some manageable approach for schools? It must be a nightmare. And yet, despite the insanity of some of what goes on, never once has any member of the department stood up and said “No, I know… it’s bonkers isn’t it? That’s politicians for you.”
And how tempting that must be.
I wouldn’t last five minutes in the role.
And in some ways, that’s fine. I am quite happy if I am seen to be holding the collective feet of the department to the fire from time to time, or if my outbursts cause even a momentary pause or thought in the minds of those high up in the department. But if everyone were like me, ranting and raving, nothing would ever get done in government, I’m sure.
So let it be said, now: for all my frustrations, and all my ire, and all my thinly-veiled – and not so thinly-veiled – assaults on the department, I have no doubts that the majority of the staff working within those walls are doing their very best, in a very professional manner, to achieve the best possible education system within the remit given to them by the political bodies at the top of the tree.
And just imagine if those politicians were your boss? We think some SLTs are tricky…