Politics in Education: The Big Picture

This is part 4 of my free eCourse based on the Politics in Education Summit covering the purpose of education and the purpose of politics where we hear from Mick Waters, Jonathan Simons and an MP.

The Purpose of Education by Mick Waters

Why is everyone singing the praises of Mick Waters? The Guardian (2009) pretty much sums up my own impression. Here’s a short video of my thanks to Mick and some insight into how this course exists (1 min):

Opening Statements:

Heidi Williams, in organising this, spent a lot of time talking with different contributors and then rang me and said, ‘What occurs to me is that so many people have a different picture of what the school system is for.’ So could I focus on that for my little session? That’s what I’m going to do…

Last September, I had started to keep a list of things that appeared in the media that began with, ‘Politicians are worried about…’ or ‘Ofsted says…’ or ‘There is a great concern about…’ At some point in the headline it would say, ‘Children today,’ or, ‘Young people today.’ And usually it was negative. So these are the sorts of things:


…dental health was a fascinating one; the amount of money being spent on the dental health of very young children, because of the enormous decay rates, is a serious concern and costing the health service a terrific amount. So the answer was, as with many of these things, that ‘young people today…’ and then the follow up was ‘more needs to be done in schools’. ‘Schools need to do more about…’ ‘Schools should focus on…’ So we had images of children standing around sinks at school brushing their teeth and all spitting at once and Nicky Morgan saying this is a vital thing for schools to take part in. The fact that it wasn’t clear what we should do at weekends or August didn’t come through. But these are things politicians grab at as they come past.”

Model Pupil: 

“I do wonder what the general population thinks a ‘model pupil’ is. I would suggest, you can dispute this, that a ‘model pupil’ is somebody who is well mannered, neat of uniform, punctual, gets their homework in time, is very positive in class and hits the grades…

Who is Mick Waters?

Wikipedia says that at school Mick was particularly good at cricket and wanted to become a cricketer, till the careers advisor persuaded him to choose teaching. Here’s a video Mickmade for SLTcamp2014 (2 min):

Politics in Education?

“The emphasis during the last parliament was on that word ‘academic’ at the expense of vocational often, and I think actually academic is decent if we call it scholarly and we call it practical in terms of other things. We had a bit on sport because we had an Olympic movement, so that was good. We had a few riots, so moral came to the fore for a few weeks and obesity got mentioned so health came into it, just for a little passing moment. If you put that back together it might explain some of the tensions in the school system. Whilst we keep hearing that all these things need to be addressed in schools we’ve got a drive from central government towards what is called ‘academic’. For me, that’s the confused and often disputed purpose of schooling that our schooling system has to grapple with, and is a challenge for us in terms of political influence.”

…to be a ‘model pupil’ is important, because our inspection regime has told schools this is the sort of thing which will help us achieve the aspirations of higher examinations over time. How does that compare with what other people might think a ‘model pupil’ would be? Somebody who organises and manages. Somebody who can balance protest and compromise. Somebody who is worldly about current affairs. Somebody who can, when necessary, say ‘no’ and object. Teacher pleasers crack the system, know how to work it, get through the gate and come out. The other side is what I would call the well-rounded individual that politicians would argue we are trying to create. One of the tensions we’ve got is that where we seek personal empowerment and democratic citizenship at certain times, we grapple with a conflicting set of agendas at other times.”


“When Estelle Morris, the much loved Estelle Morris, talked about the illiteracy and innumeracy strategies being a way for central government to get to 23,000 outlets, she gave the clue about how central government was now clawing responsibility and decision making for itself. We looked at examinations, testing, then we got to results and league tables. We inspect based on results. We identify failing schools. We use the rhetoric of the military. We’ve got targets. We’ve got trajectories. We’ve got the frontline. In the last election campaign we had a prime minister declaring war, declaring war(!), on failing schools. Now this isn’t ISIS, this is struggling schools that are being declared war upon because it suits in the rhetoric of the way we are.”

Real world:

“Whilst these talks have been going on, I reckon at least 50% of you have been writing to audiences outside of this room. You’ve been able to communicate while being here and joining on all sorts of conference ideals. (That’s the real world.) How do we get children to live the real world rather than a made up one?”


“Mythology runs through the system. The latest bit of Ofsted myth is that children need to have their work marked, they need to respond to it, you need to respond back; you write more about what they wrote than they wrote in the first place. As long as you do it in multi-coloured pens. Now, whether that’s true or not, Ofsted would debate, but it comes from somewhere and ‘somewhere’ is a bit worrying.”


“A year six has been to one of those National Trust properties: ‘Dear Mr Lucas, thank you so much for letting us go to Red Lodge and my favourite part was when we dressed up. I was a Royal Servant. My costume made me feel like a hobbit from the Lord of the Rings. The hat nearly went over my eyes. I also love looking at the artefacts.’ It’s quite lovely that, it’s natural. Further down the letter… ‘The stairs went on and on, they looked never ending. I wanted to go up higher but it was a different topic so there was no point.’”

Official Summary of Mick Waters’ Politics in Education Presentation, The Purpose of Education and What Drives Schools:

Mick spends three days a week in schools, one of which he’s teaching, and joined this Summit to explore the purpose of education, who decides it and what factors drive our system. School inspections, he suggested, lead to ‘model pupils’ not the ‘well-rounded individuals’ politicians say they want. Mick reflected that politicians aim to convince the population they’re moving in a certain direction and there’s a challenge for us in calling them to account. Deregulation, coupled with measuring the wrong things leads to withering and real drivers become; test data from the oldest students (often suspect), league table position (becoming less important), progress eight and phonics, inspection (often suspect as it’s based on suspect data) and market driven award bodies seducing schools to use their system, to satisfy the game. Students become the currency of this system and testing is about measuring effectiveness rather than helping the child. Obsessions about evidence take students away from opportunities our own curriculum says they should have. In the real world, people do work that matters – how can students follow their own pathway inside a school system, rather than living in a made up world we’ve created, in the name of state education?

The Purpose of Politics by Jonathan Simons

Jonathan Simons is the Head of Education at Policy Exchange, where he directs research on all aspects of education including Early Years, schools, skills and Higher Education. Hear him speak at a 2015 party conference (7 min):

Opening Statements: 

“I’m going to make three arguments. The first argument is that politicians have a tough gig when it comes to education and I’m going to show you some data that shows that. The second argument is that politicians have legitimacy even when people are disillusioned with the political situation. Then the third argument is what taking politics out of education actually means and why politicians are better than anyone else to do that.”

Thinking about Politicians: 

“Politicians don’t have very long to make an impact. The average tenure of a cabinet minister and a junior minister is less than one and a half years. That is from literally your first day walking in, where your private sector meets you and says, ‘Congratulations, minister, let us tell you all about the health system or the justice system or the education system or the transport system…’ to the phone call from the Prime Minister saying, ‘Thanks very much Jo Blogs/Jane Blogs, you’ve done a smashing job but unfortunately not that smashing so you’re on your way out.’ That does not give you that long in which to assimilate and think about what you want to do and do something, let alone see it through. So that’s the first challenge that politicians have got…”

“…The second challenge is that we don’t trust politicians and that’s not a recent thing. We do not trust them. They come bottom. Teachers there almost right at the top and the doctors. This is a really, really important context in which politicians operate where they are making decisions and essentially saying, ‘Trust me,’ and the response of the public is, ‘Well we don’t, really.’”


“…there’s some evidence that suggests that as politicians talk more about an issue people get more concerned about it. So politicians think they are reassuring people by talking about an issue, actually the more they talk about an issue the more people worry about it. And that becomes an issue.”

Politics in education? 

“Education is inextricably linked with the most fundamental discussions we have as a society and as a civilisation. It’s about what we are as society. It’s about what we want to be as society in the future and, as Tim Oats said this morning, it’s about knowledge and who gets knowledge and what knowledge they get. Because knowledge is inextricably linked to who gets power and who wields power, to have a question about what is education for is actually to ask; What is society for? What is our culture for? What should be done? Who should have positions of power within culture? Once you frame it that way, I think the argument becomes self-evident that you cannot possibly have that kind of discussion on a dry technocratic basis, because it’s not a dry technical question. It is one of the most fundamental questions we face as a society and therefore it has to be, I would contend, one of -if not the most- important questions of public policy. There is no right answer; it’s a values based answer and so we must debate it as questions of values.”

Government Mandate: 

“If you’ve ever studied politics at any level you will have learnt about something called democratic mandate theory: free and fair elections are the way of translating popular will into programmes of government and elected politicians therefore have legitimacy to carry those out i.e. you have a democratic election, they get the most votes, they get to do whatever they want and you suck it up, because that’s the way in which democracy works. Even so…

  • 2 of the last 4 PMs assumed office without a General Election
  • 2010 voters did not choose a Coalition (no option)
  • Government implement policies beyond the manifesto
  • Governments assume power on less than a plurality of votes
  • Votes are unequally weighed based on constituency

…so it is not as simple as saying, ‘Government have a mandate, they’ve got the votes, therefore they have legitimacy to do whatever they want.’”


“There’s an awful lot of countries in the world where the very fact that we are sitting here in this room having this discussion would be seen as a luxury. We accept and we take as red the vast amount of good which politics does which enables us to have these discussions.”

“…if you have ever studied political science you may have come across the name Ronald Inglehart. In the seventies he came up with a theory of post-materialism and, simplifying massively what that theory said, as societies get richer, as people become more successful, they stop having to worry about basic things, they stop having to worry about food and shelter and armed conflict, and they have the luxury of starting to worry about other issues, post-material issues. The classic one is environmentalism. So environmentalism rises up the agenda where people have the luxury to think about it and aren’t worried about things like ‘is your bank account about to be rocked by the government?'”

“Disillusionment with the system is a symptom of success. We have the luxury of being able to say, ‘I don’t like this politician,’ ‘I don’t like that politician,’ because we take it for granted that ultimately whatever changes the fundamentals will not change. We don’t think the government is suddenly going to requisition our school buildings. We don’t think that teachers are going to be fired overnight. We don’t think that school funding is suddenly going to be slashed in half. We don’t think about all the horrendous things that could and do happen in other school systems, because we take those as red, we can start to have disillusionment.”


“So what do politicians do? Politicians balance competing interests. Okay? This is a simplified graph which shows you the number of different stakeholders in the country. When people – and it tends to be teachers, I’m afraid – say, ‘Why doesn’t government listen to me?’ The answer is; they have done, but they just don’t always agree with you. One of the reasons why they don’t always agree with you is because they are balancing interests of teachers against other people in the children’s workforce, against pupils and against parents. Politicians have the right, the unique right, to have that type of balancing up of interests. It doesn’t mean they don’t listen; it means that they are thinking about one over the other.”



“Unlike many other systems and countries in the world we don’t have a codified constitution. We don’t have a set of rules that set out the power and authority. We have a famously fuzzy and muddled and unwritten constitution, but I would argue that there are strong limits and these are shared limits of formal and informal power on the government of the day. The formal one is obvious, it’s your majority in the House of Commons. Your informal one is also really, really important here. Tony Blair in 1997 with a majority of 179 could have done, parliamentary wise, anything he wanted. There is literally no law that he could not have got through parliament. Why didn’t he do those? Because he recognised that that would not have been a legitimate use of power, because there’s a sense of informal balance around education policy, around other areas of public policy, as is to what is acceptable. So the question is not, ‘Would you start from here?’ The question is, ‘Given we are here, what is better?’”

Official Summary of Jonathan Simons’ Politics in Education Presentation, Politics in Education and Society:

Jonathan brought his considered view on the purpose of politics in education. It’s clear, he began, that politicians have a tough gig; there’s little time to engage the public, let alone convince us on their arguments about policy. Jonathan described education as inextricably linked with the most fundamental discussions we have as a civilization; to ask what education is for is to ask what society is for. Education may be the most important question for public values based discussion, to inform public policy. Looking from this angle, Jonathan invites us to see increased disillusionment with our system of Government as a symptom of its success. Within a vast number of countries a Summit like this, to question the status quo, would be a luxury. Our democratic politics has served us to the point where we take for granted that, whatever changes, our rights will not be compromised. We are free, therefore, to feel disillusionment and lead a discourse about the issues. He proposed the question we need to ask is not ‘would we start from here?’ but, given we are here, were next?

An MP’s view by Nic Dakin

Nic was an English teacher in the UK then Sweden. He returned to take up a position at a college, where he became vice principal and then principal before his election to Parliament. In 2015 he was made Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and now serves as Shadow Schools Minister. They Work For You reports that Nic has an above average record for speaking in debates and asking questions. In this video Nic is introduced and speaks at Jalsa Salana UK 2014 hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (3 min):

Opening Statements:

“Yes, I spotted that in the session of therapy, in terms of; I’ve slipped from most trusted down to least trusted profession by my change of job. So I’m going to just stand and deliver. It’s great to join you today as Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister.  Jobs are very funny things and I’m still getting my head round this one. I’ve now discovered that when Lucy Powell is too busy, I’m sent to give talks on things like Labour’s vision for education. Well, the vision is going to be predicated around more or less the now because 2020 and beyond is a long way away and we’ve got a new shadow education team to grips with things.”

Official Summary of Nic Dakin’s Politics in Education Presentation, Labour’s vision for education:

Nic is an ex-teacher so, jokingly, pointed out how his most recent job change involved a drop from the most trusted profession to the least, according to data Jonathan presented. Reflecting on Mick’s ideas, Nic expressed that schools are very good at delivering what they are asked to deliver, though he agreed some things that matter aren’t measured; there’s risk and tension there. For Nic and his new shadow education team, a vision for 2020 is far away, so he explored what’s happening now. The Labour sponsored academy programme was to help a small number of schools and never about turning all schools into academies. More teachers left the profession than joined this year and the number of teachers quitting is the highest since records began.

That’s final section Politics in Education Summit. In part 5 of this free eCourse, we bring everything together and think about all the perspectives we’ve heard.

If you would like to go deeper into this, the full original transcripts and power-point slides are available. To request more information on this just ask from this contact page.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing, over the last days, how broad these issues really are. So, keeping with the Big Picture perspective: What will you be reflecting on from today’s content? How are you generally feeling now, about the way things are?

  • Leah K Stewart

    Something I personally fund very interesting about the ‘Why don’t politicians listen to me?’ graph (presented by Jonathan Simons) is that it was given as a justification for marginalising teachers, in order to better serve students and parents – the main groups. Perhaps this is where the purpose of a democratic government clashes with the responsibility to run an education system? A democratic government must hear all voices in proportion, whereas a service provider woudl do better to look after those providing the service (teachers) knowing that the teachers will then, in turn, better serve students and therefore parents. What do you think?

  • Christalla Jamil

    Over the years I have been to talks led by Mick Waters and the reality is indeed in his question how will students follow their own pathway in our current ed system? ​ ​ What is better? Why is our voice not always heard? Is this the reality? I seem to be asking more questions with day 4 than finding answers. ​ ​ As a current HT having lived through the stress and uncertainly of the past year I feel it is time to be heard. Our voice, that of parents and pupils is certainly the next step.

  • Leah K Stewart

    Love these reflections on the final part. ​This is exactly why I do warn that this is not like ‘normal’ courses that concludes with some form of certainty… we are in this situation now and it is complex. Mick did a fine job of bringing that out, and I found the other talks in that section added to the sense of tension we are currently in and feel.