People in government office are rarely out of the public eye. Love them or loathe them, we don’t seem to be able to ignore their activity. Some serve with dignity, integrity and have the interests of public good in mind. Others don’t exactly cover themselves in glory by getting involved in some kind of drama, questionable activity or surround themselves with a cadre of folk who can woo and sway ministerial influence with persuasive rhetoric and groupthink.
Take for example an elected minister or a secretary for education. What is it we want from them? What is it we look to them for? Leadership? Open dialogue about education? Support and advocacy for teachers, schools and communities? Wait – support and advocacy OF WHAT though? How much confidence can we have in them, and from where does their credibility come from?
I would suggest that credibility comes from having a background in education itself. It also comes with having the capacity to listen without prejudice to the many varied voices and experiences of a diverse profession. Credible leaders also spend time in a variety of communities and schools, not just strategically targeted ones which provide and confirm a narrative which peddles pre-ordained, ideologically-driven policy and practice. Surely credible leaders at the highest levels should muster a sense of what the needs and aspirations of communities actually are rather than assuming what is required.
Take a look at some existing or proposed education ministers globally. What activity do we see them involved in and what do they communicate to us about their perspective on education and plans for it? We see in Betsy Devos in the US, an inability to answer inquiry questions about private financing of party politics, a disregard for public education, a dismissal of the notion of free further education for the disadvantaged and the astonishing admission that firearms may be permissible in some schools due to the threat of bears! Even her peers are speaking out against her lack of suitability and credibility.. We see other ministers such as Nick Gibb adopt a constative position on educational ideas at major summits (i.e. Davos/WEF 2017), opining and proclaiming a book, thinker or field of thought to be the elixir of educational ills because it resonated with them personally. Meanwhile, other perspectives allegedly fall woefully short of substance or credibility.
Again, what do we think education ministers should be? An ear to, voice piece of, or policy conduit for the most generously funded and hand-picked think tanks, researchers, organisations and individuals with a wide sphere of media influence? The spearhead of an idealist or populist love-in at the theory/policy/practice intersection? A visible, active and empathetic consumer and instigator of conversations, research and practice that ask relevant and exploratory questions about educational needs and policy? I’d suggest the latter.
This question reminded me of a sentiment made by outgoing NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli;
“There is no great trick to it. It’s about listening to every point of view and sticking to facts and evidence. We never make up policy ‘because it sounds like a good idea.’ Everything we do is based on data and advice from experts, particularly teachers and principals.”
Piccoli acknowledges the central role of school leaders and teachers in shaping strategy and decision. Acknowledging us as ‘experts’ is reassuring as we are the ones in schools and classrooms doing the work, observing and reflecting on what is happening and creating evidence of what works in very particular contexts. This, I would suggest was reflected in the outpouring of kind words and affirmations by many across social media once news of his departure became more widely known.
This may leave us wondering many things; how does a minister assemble a group of informed, open-minded and collaborative people to work with and have critical dialogue with? How can they fairly and sincerely represent the views of all communities they serve? How can they guard themselves against only listening to the loudest voices who may be significantly connected to influential forms of media to espouse their beliefs? How can they defend us from alluring and murky fads and fast policy solutions that Band Aid over new and long-standing issues?
Being an education minister must be a near impossible job with unenviable pressure. It is important for the profession to inform and advise upwards to ministerial level about generative priorities drawn from existing issues and needs rather than react to inheriting policy. Maybe this is occurring to an extent in some countries. Perhaps social media has done this in part, giving people access to high profile officials. Maybe some ministers are listening, but to who, about what and to what end?