A sinister turn at the DfE

I had an interesting discussion this week with a colleague who – very reasonably – questioned the merits of blogging and tweeting about issues at the DfE. Indeed, sometimes I have myself felt a pang of guilt about my posts, and frequently some sympathy for those who work in the department. Nevertheless, my argument in favour of such posts and tweets – not just my own – was one of holding government to account. That seems all the more important in the current circumstances with the opposition parties. And even more so tonight.

The majority of my followers are probably primary school teachers, so at first glance this is a story that wouldn’t necessarily affect or bother them, but if that’s you, I want you to read this, because it matters.

People often thank me for saying what they – or their colleagues, or sometimes (somewhat hyperbolically) the whole profession – are thinking. I hope that in some small way my words might represent some views held within schools that the DfE ought to hear, and that they might sometimes reach those who need to hear them. But I also know that my input is limited.

For government to be properly held to account we rely on the opposition benches, the parliamentary system, and a free press. Except the first is a disaster area at the moment, and that last one is under threat.

It seems that the same governing party which felt it so important to defend the merits of a free press after the hacking scandals, has decided that such freedom to scrutinise things shouldn’t apply to those questioning the DfE. They have created new rules that insist that when organisations use DfE data, their findings must be sent to the department 48 hours before being published.

It may be the thin end of a very sinister wedge; it may just be a desperate attempt to cover-up some of the disasters that seem to beset the department, but it isn’t a legitimate part of democratic governance. It isn’t acceptable that a department be allowed to prevent publication – for whatever period – of evidence and argument merely because it might seem inconvenient or unwelcome to them. It isn’t acceptable that a press that is free to investigate other organisations or publish details of individuals private lives should not also have the freedom to publish evaluations of government action.

Organisations like FFT and its research arm Education Datalab do invaluable work in informing the profession, providing context for national policy, and providing evidence to challenge and support government policy. Newspapers like the TES and Schools Week play a vital role in ensuring that the public is well-informed about hugely important issues that might otherwise be ignored. To try to hamper that work because it presents inconveniences for the politicians is unacceptable.

At best it seems like a childish tantrum got out of hand; at worst, it has echoes of the very worst of governments that try to manage the media to suit their purposes. And like with so many things, if this is allowed to happen, then what is next?

See Schools Week article:

Academics must show research to government two days before publishing, say new DfE rules

One thought on “A sinister turn at the DfE

  1. NEm 8 October 2016 at 5:27 am Reply

    Interesting article Michael and I love the blog. It’s worth remembering that, in our country, the principles of democracy and press freedom are relatively new. They are ideas that are taken for granted and many complacently celebrate the strength and quality of our press and democracy. The truth is that the fight for these freedoms is ongoing and it will be a long process. Curran’s history of press, media and government in the UK ‘Power without Responsibility’ is well worth a look. I wouldn’t level this accusation at you Michael, and, like many others, I find your blog very informative and useful, but it’s important for all of us including bloggers to hold less self-serving views about what we do, This case seems unusual because it’s more common for press and government to collude when really serious issues are reported. It will be interesting to see how this story pans out.

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