Send ministers back to school to learn leadership, says union chief

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The leader of a headteachers’ union has told members that it is a “pity” the Government cannot be sent back to school to learn about leadership.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said at the union’s annual conference in Telford on Friday that “an absolute failure of political leadership” is making education harder for heads, teachers and pupils.

“School leadership is hard at the moment. It’s not simply the continuing Covid pressures, the continuing lack of funding, the high-stakes accountability, the quality of inspection, the recruitment and retention crisis, the long hours, or the lack of pay … it is also the absolute failure of political leadership,” he said.

“The failure of an out-of-touch government is making the job of producing well-rounded young adults ready to play a full role in society so difficult.

“The basics taught in school are not how to write and how to count. The first things are self-regulation, good behaviour, decency, honesty and integrity, things that are hard to observe in the UK government right now,” he said.

He added that he was not angry about the alleged parties in Westminster during lockdown but that it was “unforgiveable” for the Prime Minister to mislead the public about what happened.

“In the scheme of things, the offence of having a glass of wine and a slice of cake is minor but for the Prime Minister of the country to mislead us about it repeatedly is unforgiveable and clearly in breach of the standards of our democratic institutions,” he said.

Referring to comments made by Michael Fabricant MP that teachers and nurses also enjoyed a quiet drink in staffrooms during the pandemic, he said that this was “utter nonsense”.

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Michael Fabricant MP made comments about teachers (Peter Byrne/PA)

“Anybody that knows anything about school realises they are places for children and therefore in contrast to Westminster there is not an alcohol culture throughout the school system,” he said.

Mr Whiteman also used his speech to raise concerns over the Government’s treatment of refugees, and how its new political impartiality Bill for schools could limit discussion of some of these issues.

“Like the rest of us, young people see on the television every day the appalling scenes from the Ukraine. And before that the difficult scenes from Afghanistan and the difficult scenes from Syria too,” he said.

“They also see refugees, desperate humans, arriving on our shores in rubber boats from France. And they can see the complete lack of compassion, the complete lack of humanity demonstrated by our government in the way that we deal with these issues,” he said.

He added that young people “are not stupid”, and that they could also hear the “difficult debates about immigration”, which he said was “not an easy subject”.

“And you’re not allowed to teach young people about this in a balanced way. The rhetoric from government wants to portray you as all trendy lefties that want to indoctrinate young people,” he said, adding that this was “utter tosh”.

“You will teach young people about how to interrogate these issues, you will teach them how to interrogate them well and to draw their own conclusions. You have been doing this well for years, and you will do it in a balanced way,” he said.

He said that the rising rates of child poverty were a “blight” on the Government’s record. “Hungry children with chaotic lives at home are difficult to teach and difficult to care for.”

He added: “I mentioned Ukraine earlier, and I’ve no doubt that, like me, many of you have watched in horror at the bloodshed and the destruction which continues to bring devastation to its people.

“History will define governments on how they acted during such crises, and this administration’s hesitance in welcoming those affected by the war does not reflect the values of compassion, humanity and solidarity that I know all of you deliver in your schools every day when you welcome children from war-torn countries who have joined your school.”

On the Government’s plans for asylum seekers, he said: “If you happen to arrive on a boat, you will be shipped off to Rwanda. Zero compassion, zero humanity.”

He said that the same “inertia” had been shown towards the issue of child poverty. Referring to Marcus Rashford’s activism on the issue, he said “it shouldn’t take a Premier League footballer to force a response on such a critical issue”.

He said the Government’s recent Levelling Up paper started off as a “seemingly admirable effort to tackle the worst consequences of inequality in society” and had been reduced to a set of principles lacking in imagination.

He said levelling up would be impossible without further investment in education, and that “it may be called a White Paper but that doesn’t mean that the page should be blank of all meaning”.

He said the Schools White Paper had left the profession “again with a debate about structures”.

Ofsted, he said, had carried out “tone-deaf” inspections at times, “almost as if Covid is being used as an excuse”.

“It was never, never an excuse – it was a crisis.

“It’s a pity we can’t mandate our country’s leaders to go back to school, so you can teach them all a thing or two about leadership.”

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