Fog and early darkness always remind me of a conversation in a Head’s office on the edge of Sunderland at the end of a day, when the dark sky was all-enveloping. We talked about what it must have been like in mediaeval times, with the same sky, no lights, just the cold and the hills, and eventually, to the west, Durham Cathedral appearing looming above the city as if it had descended directly from heaven.
Safely indoors, the clock ticked round to year 11 assembly: Instructions for Mock Exams. These will be important but we don’t know how important. I noted with interest that the Queen of the Mocks referred to the pre-exam gathering place as the Green Canteen. This is catching on, though I call it the Dining Room and one of the chaps on the top floor calls it the Bistro. It doesn’t matter.
The curriculum we offer does matter, which may lie behind the continually condescending tone of this week’s post-lockdown briefing from the DfE. While announcing a pay freeze for teachers and public spending cuts that will make learning re-stabilisation harder, they remind us of the blindingly obvious: I condense
- the curriculum must remain broad and ambitious
- remote education must be high-quality and safe,
- schools should plan on the basis of the educational needs of pupils.
Which appears to be the Home Secretary’s preferred register, manifesting itself ‘in forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing. This may not be done intentionally to cause upset, but that has been the effect on some individuals’.
And later in Alex Allen’s belatedly published independent advice ‘Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.’
And then! ‘There is no evidence that she was aware of the impact of her behaviour and no feedback was given to her at the time………I note the finding of different and more positive behaviour since these issues were raised with her.’
Yet she remains, as the PM has insisted that the wagons circle around ‘the Pritster’.
I am in a Blackheath cycling fog about this and mediaeval darkness has descended on my comprehension. How can someone of such eminence, the Home Secretary, have to have bullying pointed out to her? How can it ever be right to shout and swear at colleagues, especially those whom one is expected to lead? How can she command any respect?
I have long clung to the existence of the Committee for Standards in Public Life as a guarantor of standards of conduct for public officials, from the PM down to lowly ole me. The ‘Nolan Principles’ of accountability, selflessness, honesty, objectivity, openness, integrity and leadership have bound us all since 1994. The current Chair spoke on 12 November and said:
‘The bullying allegations made against the Home Secretary were investigated by the Cabinet Office but the outcome of that investigation has not been published though completed some months ago…..this does not build confidence in the accountability of government.’
He goes on, further, to talk about cronyism in appointments and the awarding of public contracts, the firing of civil servants when the resignation of a minister would have been correct, the avoiding of parliamentary scrutiny by media announcements and the use of ‘just vote us out if you don’t like us’ as a way of brass-necking wrong behaviour.
The system depends on everyone choosing to do right, Evans says. High public standards rely on the individual. ‘It remains that case that in politics, public service and business, that ethical standards are first and foremost a matter of personal responsibility.’ because 'few systems are sufficiently robust to constrain those who would deliberately undermine them’.
This is a dense area and the argument is nuanced. We are not living in a post-Nolan world nor should any of us wish to. We want high standards of conduct in our politicians because we want them to be good people determined to do the best for their constituents. We don’t want to be saddled with people who, as educated adults, have to be told how to behave. We want government to be built on a foundation of goodness and altruism, not self-interest and showing-off. We expect it of children and ourselves and we have a civic right to expect it of our government.
When we devised the national Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education in 2016-18 we realised that Nolan wasn’t enough, but we needed clear personal virtues to underpin all of our actions. We therefore also committed ourselves to trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism. We check our own behaviour to make sure it sets the right example to children, and to other adults. This enlightenment didn’t descend from a mediaeval heave, we worked at it.
The PM is lost in a fog of his own obfuscation. He has made too many personal mistakes to want to shine the Nolan spotlight on colleagues. He looks as though he can’t tell right from wrong and worse, that he doesn’t care. Our children deserve better than this.