Changing of the Guard

After months of speculation, last week was action-packed in Westminster as the Prime Minister executed the first major Cabinet reshuffle of his tenure. It was, perhaps, unsurprising that Gavin Williamson’s time as Education Secretary came to an end after the most turbulent and disrupted period for schools and universities in over a century, although few would have bet on Nadhim Zahawi, the Minister previously responsible for the vaccination roll-out, taking on the post.

And the challenges which lie ahead for the new Secretary of State are significant. As Sam Freedman, former education advisor to Michael Gove, pointed out in an article in the Times Educational Supplement on Friday: levels of trust between the sector and the Government are low; there has yet to be any final decision on how next summer’s exams will operate and what standard for grading will be employed; priorities need to be identified for the imminent spending review; and there is significant need for a coherent vision and strategy for the nation’s education system which goes beyond catch-up and coping with C-19. There is plenty to do.

Beyond the high-profile replacements, however, the departure of Nick Gibb as Schools Minister came as a shock to the educational establishment. He was Shadow Minister from 2005-2010 and has spent most of the past 11 years in this role, during which time he has been a consistent supporter of several significant reforms which many would argue have improved standards across schools. He has almost single-handedly driven the move to the teaching of early reading through the phonics method; along with Michael Gove, he has delivered course content change embedded deeply in the concept of a knowledge-rich curriculum; under his watch, grade inflation at GCSE and A-Level was halted; and, at the core of his credo, is an unshakeable belief in the merit of examinations and academic rigour. Whatever one’s perspective on Nick Gibb’s educational views, he was a minister with clear beliefs who stayed the course, and governments of all colours need more public servants of his ilk.

With Gibb’s departure, there is a real sense that we are at a crossroads in terms of education policy and I, like so many within this world, will be watching carefully to get a sense of the likely direction of future travel. Zahawi’s background in business might suggest a greater focus on employment skills, and many have highlighted his proximity to Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, who has been pushing for an overhaul of the assessment system, particularly around GCSEs, as well as greater use of technology in the classroom.

At Wellington College, these have been live topics for debate over the past few years and, as I mentioned in my recorded Speech Day address back in June, we are carrying out a Lower and Middle School Curriculum Review over the coming terms to ensure that what and how we are teaching in the Third to Fifth Forms is as inspiring, relevant and plugged into the world of tomorrow as it needs to be. Our new Deputy Head Academic, Ben Evans, arrives in January and will drive this work along with key academic leaders from within the College. I have no doubt that it will involve significant consultation with all stakeholders – most notably pupils, teaching staff and parents.

We are not predetermining the outcome of this Review in any way, but the recent pandemic and the changing of the guard in Westminster offer an opportunity for a pioneering school like Wellington to re-examine what we do and to explore alternatives for the future. It is not in our institutional DNA to pass on the opportunity to reflect and simply to stick with the status quo simply because it is what we have always done. If we do make any changes in due course, it will be because we are convinced they will help deliver a significantly improved educational experience for our pupils and prepare them even better to serve and help shape a better world in their adult lives.

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