Should politicians lead the educational dance?


I have just read the autobiography of my local MP, Vince Cable, who is currently Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the UK Government. It is a fascinating story of someone who made it into full-blown national politics later in life and eventually became (interim) leader of a political party. Despite his economic credentials, he is probably best known by the British public for dancing elegantly on a TV Xmas Special in 2010, not long after after he became SoS.

I have never met or been in touch with Vince Cable, but I feel I already sort of know him for a number of reasons:

  • I telephone canvassed on behalf of his party, the Liberal Democrats, including for his target seat Twickenham, back in 1997 when Vince first became an MP;
  • My subsequent employer had a close relationship with what is now Cable’s Ministry (no connection with the above bullet I hasten to add!);
  • As a household we receive regular party political blurb about his campaigns on key local issues. I am 100% with him, and other local MPs, on having no third runway at London Heathrow Airport.

The area which I have worked in for the last decade is partially within Vince’s remit as SoS. But I have no clear idea of his views on education. Reading his autobiography you start to get some sense of what these views might be, and his website briefly mentions support for two new-built academies in Twickenham which have been set up in collaboration with a Swedish education chain. His first wife used to be a teacher in the state sector but stopped despite having considerable personal drive – sadly she later died from cancer. Cable is, arguably, an academic at heart and has had lecturing and research positions within universities. This makes him ‘qualified’ to speak on education issues and some might say he would do it as forcefully as colleagues with the brief in his department and in the Department for Education. Perhaps he does so at (and around) the Cabinet table.

This leads to a general issue of whether politicians, local or national, can really provide an objective and reasoned view on education issues, try as they might. The intrigues of the political system often just get in the way, as do very personal decisions about children or grandchildren. Passion and objectivity don’t always necessarily go hand in hand. Hence the need for a protective boundary between the way schools, colleges and universities are actually run and strong views about how they should be run held by local councillors, MPs and even Ministers.

Where does this leave Vince Cable?

Forgive the pun, but strictly speaking I suspect he would want to lead an educational dance given the opportunity. I am not sure which steps would be the right ones and certainly I wouldn’t advocate such quick ones as Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has been employing in some areas. But perhaps Vince could play more the role of one of the judging panel and use his clearly excellent analytical skills to help evaluate the real benefits of current Coalition education policy.

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