Think Like An Education Secretary 2015

Another Christmas Eve, another Education Secretary’s annual reading list.
But this year there’s a problem: Nicky Morgan doesn’t seem to like books.
She almost never mentions them. Her speeches seldom quote books. She rarely singles out ideas from authors. Admittedly, a few days ago, she asked everyone to buy their children a book for Christmas. But what book would Morgs like them to buy? Not obvious. She never says.
Still, as is tradition, I have used my best detective skills to work out what books our edu-sec Nicky has been reading over 2015. If you want to understand her, it would be worth you reading them too.
1.Paul Tough – How Children Succeed (aka ‘The Grit Book’)
When asked by the TES for her recommendation of one book every teacher should read, Nicky Morgan picked this: the yawn-tastic Paul Tough ‘grit’ book. First appearing in this list in 2012 it’s the sort of choice that a special advisor makes for you: just classic enough to make you sound knowledgeable about schools, not wayward enough to mark you out as actually having a personality. Next!
2. David Didau – What if everything you knew about education was wrong (aka ‘The wrong book’)
After reading this I like to imagine Morgan sending it on to schools minister Nick Gibb who returned it with the words ‘IT’S NOT’ scrawled on the front, and told her to stick it in the bin.
3. Jonathan Simons and Natasha Porter (Eds) – Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany ED Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange
This doesn’t have a catchy name, which is a shame because it needs one. The title does accurately tell you what it is about though. It’s collection of love letters (sorry ‘essays’) to ED Hirsch, the elderly American academic, who has led the thinking of successive Conservative education politicians and particularly captured the heart of Nick Gibb. The book does a good job of exploring his ideas. And it’s not all positive. Chris Husbands in particular needles at some of his thoughts. There’s also a rather fabulous passage where James O’Shaugnessy (leader of an academy chain, and recently made a Lord) bemoans how some pupils have never visited the seaside: “They lacked any of the shared cultural reference points that many of us take for granted – fish and chips, the sailing metaphors that abound in spoken English, a basic understanding of marine plant life”. His solution is that they must be exposed to “the best that has been thought and said”. If you can figure out how that helps them understand fish and chips, you’re a better person than me. (Also, next time I meet O’Shaughnessy I’m asking him to name five types of marine plant).
4. Philip Tetlock – Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
Got a problem? It’s okay. Nicky Morgan has a solution. EXPERT GROUPS. This year she started 12 of the things, and it sounds like more are to come. Sometimes the groups are diverse, sometimes not. The strategy has also been criticised for being diversionary – making it look like things are happening when they are not.
Tetlock’s book provides a fascinating overview of research showing that ‘accurately selected amateurs’ can often make better predictions and recommendations for the future than can so-called ‘experts’. Perhaps these groups will use the wisdom of crowds to solve all our education woes after all.
5. Disney – Finding Nemo: A Personalised Adventure
Like her predecessor, Morgan knows how to turn a cultural reference to her advantage. Asked in an interview earlier this year if she liked the nickname ‘NiMo’ given to her by people in the media with a penchant for shortening names, she wholeheartedly agreed, though she was at pains to point out that her son preferred stories about fish Nemo, than about her.
Books Nicky Morgan probably didn’t read this year… but should
6. John Kay – Other People’s Money
Far removed from the world of education, Kay’s book takes a critical look at the finance industry, and why it got so out of control. The title refers to the way decisions are made in banking secretly, and for the benefit of traders, n the back of “other people’s money”. There are lessons here for schools. When it’s “other people’s kids” and “taxpayer’s money” decisions about education, especially when not open and transparent, can quickly become self-serving. The descriptions of ‘gaming behaviour’ have relevance for the school sector and a smart education secretary would be getting ahead of them.
7. Eric Dezenhall – Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management
Schools minister Nick Gibb can tell people there isn’t a teacher recruitment crisis until the cows come home. But if people feel there is, then that has to be dealt with. Plus there’s plenty of other crises coming: the total curriculum, assessment, performance table, and exam reform revolution is about to come home to roost, and some of it isn’t going to be pretty. This classic of the genre describes how to explain the difference between ‘a nuisance, a problem, a crisis and an assault’. Knowing this before heading into parliamentary question sessions over the next year is likely to be vital.
8. John Baldoni – Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up
Finally, 2015 was the year when Morgan intimated that she might want to run for leader of the Conservative party when David Cameron steps down. In doing so she has made George Osborne quivery (he’d deny this, obvs, but I reckon it bothered him). Subtle moves will be needed to keep the upper echelons of the party onside in the coming years, but if she can manage it – she could, one day, be a contender. This book might just help explain how.

I Trolled A Scam Caller So Hard … HE Put The Phone Down On ME

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I received a phone call last week from a scam artist.
It was obvious from pretty early on that he was going to pretend I had a bunch of computer problems and then either sell me a really expensive download to stop the alleged problem, or allow him access to my computer so he could steal personal data.
Scams like this annoy me. My grandparents are both in their 80s but try to use computers as best they can. (They like facebook, and Skype). Calls like these could easily bamboozle them into thinking something was wrong and handing over money for something they really don’t need.
So I figured the best thing I could do was waste some of the callers’ time.
Which is what I did and I recorded it.

PS – What I tell him near the end, which finally pushes him to hang up, is genuinely true!

The Government Department That Stole Christmas

It was 9.05am when I rang the tribunal office to find out if the Department for Education would be appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision against them. Again.
I wanted to know if I would find myself in court defending a request for information I first made to them in 2012. Again.
For a short moment a reprieve looked hopeful.
“No, can’t see an appeal listed here,” said the man with a polite but gruff voice.
But I’ve been here before. I remembered his polite but gruff voice. And I awaited the next step.
“Just hold the line while I check to see if anything came in the final post last night,” he said.
This is where it all fell down last time. Back in December 2013 I’d called at 3.05am from a kitchen in Missouri, USA (where I lived at the time). The exact same man had said the exact same thing about checking the post then too. I was silently dancing on the kitchen tiles – careful not to wake the neighbours at such an unholy hour – when he came back with the news he presented this time too.
“Oh, no, I’m wrong! They have in fact put in for an appeal. Yes, it’s here.”
The little rotters. That’s what went through my mind on both occasions. What an absolute pain in the arse.
“Have they asked for an on-paper hearing?” I asked, hoping, fingers crossed, that perhaps we could all be spared the courtroom dramas and have the whole thing finally finished off by email.
“No, they’ve asked for an oral hearing in London,” the man said.
Ugh, I thought. Deep super not-dancing-on-any-tiles ugh.
And so it is that for the fourth December in a row I am reading up on case law and preparing arguments, all just so I can get my hands on a set of school documents that up until 2010 had always been open to the public.
So let’s rewind. How did this happen?
December 2012 – Earlier in the year I had asked for the decision letters sent to groups applying to open new state schools (also known as ‘free schools’). On a whim I also asked for the application forms submitted by the groups – something I would later regret.  Reasons for why new school proposals were accepted and rejected were publicly open until 2010. (Just like they still are for, say, putting up a conservatory on your house or opening a pub). At the time I assumed the government simply hadn’t published them because the Department for Education (DfE) kept shifting their website and the free schools process was quite new.
By December 2012 I learned the DfE were adamant they would not release the documents  even though every FOI expert I spoke to told me transparency in this case should be a no-brainer. Hence, I spent New Year’s Eve in 2012 writing to the information commissioner’s office (ICO) for an independent review.
December 2013 – After waiting 11 months for the ICO to rule, they finally ruled strongly in my favour. The public interest would best be served by the documents’ release, they said, and ordered the Department for Education to hand over the docs. Only, the DfE decided not to hand them over and instead appealed. On the grounds that the request was ‘vexatious’ because it would cost too much to comply with. A fact they hadn’t mentioned once in the previous 14 months of wrangling. I spent that new year writing my first ever court submission.
December 2014 – On a rainy day in June I faced the DfE’s claim that my request was vexatious, and as I boarded a flight in July I found out they had won – sort of. Because I had asked for the letter and the application forms, – and the removal of personal data from the former was so extensive – the judge decided the entire request was ‘burdensome’. But the head of the DfE’s free school group clearly said while on the witness stand that if I had asked just for the letters on their own (the thing I most wanted) that these would not have been considered too burdensome. The day after the judgment I submitted a reduced request for just the letters. The DfE refused to budge. Again. Twice. Last Christmas I wrote again to the ICO asking for another independent judgement.
December 2015 – All of which takes us to now. After waiting another 10 months for the ICO to make the exact same decision they made in 2012 – (no, I can’t fathom why it took that long either) – the ruling was exactly the same. The public interest was in favour of disclosure and the DfE had to hand over the docs. Only this time the DfE added a twist: they had lost 41 of the documents.  (No, I can’t fathom how that happened either).
And then they appealed. The rotters!giphy (1)
Hence, for the fourth year in the row, I will spend the upcoming family holiday writing yet another court submission which this time, coincidentally, is due on New Year’s Day.
Forget rotters. From now on I’m tempted to call them the ‘Grinch’.
The Department for Education have literally stolen my Christmas. Four times.