No government department likes to be without a good war to impress on the country that it has a genuine sense of purpose.
The Department for Education’s continuing armed conflict is with the scourge of failing and coasting schools. It’s probably a little early in the parliament to say whether the education secretary is herself failing, but she certainly seems to be coasting.
Indeed, Nicky Morgan’s undoubted talent for coasting is almost certainly the reason David Cameron gave her the job. Someone to make education much duller and less toxic for the Conservatives than it had been under Michael Gove.
When Morgan was first appointed education secretary she had the air of a somewhat diffident coaster: a woman who wasn’t too sure she was up to the high-pressure demands of coasting. Now the government has been returned with a majority, Morgan’s coasting has acquired a new self-belief. Some might call it growing into the job, though the education secretary must beware of over-confidence.
At departmental questions, she came close to making her opposite number, Tristram Hunt, appear statesmanlike and competent. That’s something that never happened when her predecessor was at the despatch box.
Not that it took a great deal. All Hunt had to do was ask Morgan to explain how she was proposing to define failing and coasting schools in the government’s new education bill. The education secretary was horrified at the suggestion – defining coasting was contradictory to the spirit of coasting. The kind of coasting that leads to coastal erosion. “I see no reason to say what I mean by failing and coasting,” Morgan coasted, “because that kind of detail can wait until the bill reaches its committee stages”.
Hunt tried again. Was she really suggesting that the government was intending to ask parliament to vote on a second reading of a bill whose very first sentence was so vague as to be meaningless? “That’s precisely what I’m saying,” Morgan responded tartly. She didn’t add that coasting was only ever intended as a catch-all term to allow the government to turn any school it liked into an academy or free school, because that was already implicit in her annoyance. A coasting bill was designed to do just that.
For someone who lives, speaks and breathes perfect civil servant, Mogadon Morgan can get surprisingly irritable when her coastal vision is challenged. “If failing or coasting schools are going to be turned into academies,” the Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh asked quite reasonably, “Will failing or coasting academies be turned back into schools?’ Morgan crossed her arms importantly and harrumphed: “Oh very funny.”
Help – if any intervention from the schools minister, Nick Gibb, could be deemed helpful – was at hand. He said: “Academies that were deemed to be coasting or failing would be asked to change sponsors.”
Here was the vision. The Department for Education was to become Fifa, with Morgan the new Sepp Blatter. Rather than question the nature of the organisation, you just pin the blame for all its failings on those who underwrite its errors. Any schools caught coasting on Morgan’s dozy watch would be relocated to Russia or Qatar. Brilliant.
The need to get to the bottom of coasting became ever more urgent. By any normal standards, Morgan is the essence of coasting, but in contrast to her juniors she is the model of high-octane clarity.
Sam Gyimah, the junior minister for childcare, brought coasting to a standstill. He said: “This government is committed to children’s centre provision. Just to be clear, only 142 have closed and eight new centres have opened since 2010.” Numeracy isn’t his strong point. Not coasting, but failing.
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