Nicky Morgan is Secretary of State for Education and MP for Loughborough.
The tragic events played out on the streets of Paris last week provide yet another reminder that there are some living among us who wish to do us harm. Mercifully, so-called ‘mass casualty events’ are rare, and that is thanks in no small part to the work of the security services, whose work is rarely as glamorous as the films and TV dramas suggest.
Rather, it requires a daily commitment to remain vigilant and to do the back-breaking, detailed work that is anything but. A lot of what we do in government fits this mould. It’s rarely glamorous or exciting. It’s more often about zeroing in on the detail and ensuring that government delivers for the people on a daily and weekly basis.
This goes to the very heart of the choice at the next election: the competence of a trusted team on the one hand or the chaos of Labour on the other. Let me give you a relevant example from my own department.
Yesterday, the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) Permanent Secretary (a man I imagine no reader will have heard of, but a hard-working and diligent public servant) published the results of a review into the way successive ministers have responded to allegations about extremism in schools over the years. The review, stretching back 20 years to the days just before Labour came to power, found no specific warnings had been missed, but did note that the department ‘lacked inquisitiveness’ in the past.
Tackling this kind of problem – a general lack of inquisitiveness – and focusing on the detail in such a sensitive and important area of public policy may not generate huge headlines, but it is precisely this kind of detailed work that this Government has done.
When we came to office in 2010, the DfE’s ability to identify and tackle concerns about extremism in England’s schools was lax, to say the least. Despite the growing threat, the previous Labour Government had failed to respond to the realities of a changing world and had let things slide. The processes we inherited were simply not fit for purpose.
That’s why one of the first things we did on coming to office was to establish a dedicated “Preventing Extremism Unit” in the DfE charged with strengthening the regulatory framework around schools and ensuring only suitable people were able to establish and run them in the first place. This received very little attention at the time, but today this unit – which replaced Labour’s “community cohesion” team and is soon to be 35 people strong – is at the forefront of the fight against extremism in England’s schools.
But we didn’t stop there. We have also ensured that all schools of whatever type adhere to and promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. These values lie at the heart of our country and society, and it’s right that schools – whose main task and responsibility is to prepare young people for life in this country – should put them at the heart of what they do. I want these values to flow through the curriculum and not to be treated as a bolt on or an afterthought.
This approach will take time to bed in, but we are working with Ofsted to improve their capacity, expertise and their ability to assess schools on this basis. In 2012, we strengthened teacher standards to forbid teachers from undermining fundamental British values. Now, teachers found to be seeking to undercut these essential values in schools can be barred from teaching. This seems obvious, but again under Labour nothing was done.
We have also changed the way we regulate academies to allow us to remove individuals who promote extremist views from leadership positions in schools. The academy programme was of course begun under Labour, yet when we came to office it was too easy for people with unacceptable views to become school leaders. These actions – on top of many other apparently small yet important decisions – mean that this Government has done more than any other to prevent extremism in our schools.
I believe we can be confident that any repeat of the events we saw in some of Birmingham’s schools all too recently would be identified and addressed far more quickly today than under the previous regime. Yet, as so often, when the problems in Birmingham were identified it fell to us to clear up the mess. It was this Government that took the swift, decisive action necessary to turn things around: commissioning Ofsted inspections, appointing Peter Clarke, who formerly had charge of Counter-Terrorism Command, to conduct a thorough investigation (in the face of Labour opposition), and replacing the leadership of those schools where Ofsted identified problems.
The job is a long way from done and we must remain vigilant – committing ourselves to doing the hard, daily work that will see the task through – but, thanks to this Government, we are in a much better position today than we might have been.
In my view, there can be no more important responsibility than keeping children safe and giving them the chance of a high-quality education that prepares them for life in modern Britain. Every child, regardless of background, should be given the opportunity to learn the knowledge, skills and values they need to fulfil their potential and succeed in life. During the chaos of the Labour years, this simply was not happening. Today, thanks to the diligence and efforts of this Government, they have more chance of going to a good or outstanding school than ever before. That is something of which we can all be proud.