Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
So, hard-left Labour MP Chris Williamson’s brilliant idea to tackle the problem of women feeling unsafe on public transport is to create women-only train carriages. This is a recycled idea put forward by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 during his first Labour leadership contest.
It was daft then (and I condemned it then) and it remains daft now. How does getting women to sit in special segregated carriages address and drive out unacceptable and abusive behaviour on our trains? It’s a bit like saying that the way to tackle online abuse is to have gender segregated social media or, worse, to tell the victim to leave the online site rather than to call out and silence the online trolls.
It is a typically short-sighted, hastily thought up idea we’d expect from an Opposition which is doing no serious policy thinking at all. But it is also symptomatic of our politics where poorly tested policy ideas, often to deal with an unexpected crisis, become a story before becoming tomorrow’s chip paper.
And perhaps it’s our fault – we’ve been telling people for years that the way to solve their worries is to adopt “X immediate response” or carry out “Y review”.
Wouldn’t it be better if sometimes we stood back and said “That’s a really good question to which we don’t yet have the answer but we’re working on it” or “We are going to make this change but it is going to take some time to have an effect but it will be worth taking the time to get this right”?
One such example is the recent A level and GCSE results. When the Coalition Government was formed in 2010, there was huge criticism of grade inflation. The number of students getting top grades kept rising and yet universities and employers kept saying they were getting students who were less and less prepared for further study or the world of work. The increasingly good grades in Maths and English just didn’t ring true as numeracy and literacy skills were tested out in the real world.
In 2010, Ministers didn’t just unveil one quick and easy solution but they unpacked the problem – students were being entered too early for exams so they could have another shot for league table purposes if the first result wasn’t great, the curriculum wasn’t stretching enough, expectations weren’t being set high enough, too much coursework meant a focus on getting that right and not on the actual acquisition of knowledge, and league tables were driving students to take subjects which didn’t really set them up for success in the 21st century workplace.
So, systematically over the last seven years, changes have been made – only the grade achieved on first entry counts, changing the grading of the English speaking component, overhauling the curriculum and changing the grading system, setting up new free schools where academic expectations are often much higher (look at last week’s GCSE results), introducing the Ebacc suite of subjects, moving to Progress 8, requiring students who don’t get a C or above to re-take English and Maths… The list of changes goes on.
Changes made in 2013 have taken effect this year. That’s a long gestation for politics, but a necessary one in education. It required persistence. When I took up the baton from Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education I had many people asking me to row back on the Ebacc or change grading decisions. I refused. Getting these policies right really, really matters – to the students, to their families, to their teachers, to employers, and to the future of our country. And, many times, it meant I had to turn up to schools and colleges, where staff and students were looking for a quick and agreeable answer from me and instead I had to explain why we weren’t going to compromise and why the harder route really was the right one overall.
That approach is now needed with Brexit. I don’t meet many former Leave voters who regret their decision last year – but I do meet quite a number who tell me that “leaving the EU is more complicated than I thought it would be.”
The Government’s recent position papers are a welcome and clear step towards showing just how much work Brexit is taking and how many hidden nuances there are. The problems aren’t insoluble. But they need to be aired, debated and negotiated. And it needs politicians to level with the British people and tell them that, yes, we will leave and we will get a deal with the EU but it won’t be quick and it won’t be painless but the pragmatic route being chosen is the right one overall. The politicians who do that are the ones who won’t fall prey to easy soundbites and solutions about women-only train carriages.