Sir Anthony Seldon
The short tenures of recent prime ministers is becoming as unmissable as it is noteworthy. If you look back we’ve had Gordon Brown (three years), David Cameron (six), Theresa May and Boris Johnson (again with three years apiece) and then Liz Truss, who lasted barely a month. But I would say all this has nothing to do with social media; it’s because they have no inkling how to be Prime Minister. The office itself isn’t impossible, it’s just the way they operate makes it seem so.
I was asked recently if I’d write a book about the Truss administration or whether it would be too short; the person in question told me they thought it might be novella-length. I explained that the opposite is the case; in fact there’s so much to say I doubt it could be contained in a short book at all!
When I think back on how I became a teacher, I remember how growing up I was struck by the thought that education had lost its enchantment. It had been stripped of joy, stripped of discovery and self-reflection. And obviously, that’s what lead to problems. When I was younger, I was often in trouble. I didn’t want to cause hurt; but I couldn’t be myself in school since it seemed to be trying to make me what I wasn’t. When advising pupils and students and parents about the big moments which come about: choices at GCSE, A-Levels, and work, I say to them that you must let the child decide and let them be driven by what they love not what you think they need.
There’s been a lot of talk about Chat GPT recently. I began writing The Fourth Education Revolution in 2017 before it was a topic, and I still think AI has the potential to make the plight of the teacher far better if it’s harnessed early and in the right way. In many respects we still have a 19th century system where the teacher’s at the front of the class, students sit passively and everyone moves at the same pace at the same time of day. That means teacher workload gets worse with the effects we all see today. AI can change that and free up teachers for their role: to teach children how to live and be happy.
I am sympathetic to teachers, but it’s wrong for the unions to be striking, because it harms young people. It’s not just that they miss out on their exams but it’s also showing young people that if you don’t like what you’ve got you’ve got to make innocent people suffer; that’s what young people are internalising. That said, the government is utterly at fault. If you have 10 education secretaries in 13 years, many of whom don’t understand schools and listen to the wrong people, it’s not very surprising that we have this situation. Usually it shows the contempt of prime ministers for education. The role is used as a berth to help solve a political problem of patronage by the PM of the day, and rarely given to anyone who might do something good with it.
Amanda Spielman is highly intelligent, but Ofsted can’t continue in its current form as a judgmental external body. At the moment, it’s more than 20th century – it’s 19th century. But frankly it’s not a question of whether it will change, but of when. This isn’t a question of whether we have inspections or not, it’s about the nature of the those inspections. The process needs to be supportive and lead to improvement – it’s as simple as that.
I’ve just finished my latest book on Boris Johnson and it makes me think back to founding the Institute of Contemporary British History with Peter Hennessy in 1986. It’s important you don’t abandon the recent past to partisan actors and partisan actors. You need to bring the skills of the academic historian to bear in analysing the past – and that’s more important than ever during a time of culture wars. What we need now is what we always need: understanding.
Sir Anthony Seldon’s latest book Johnson at 10 is available from Biteback Publishing