The recent reshuffle – dominating headlines for a few days – has now been and gone with little discernible impact on the direction of the Government. Indeed, Conservative backbenchers and the media seem to be increasingly interested in the lack of vision and ideas across Whitehall as Brexit, just like before, takes centre stage at the expense of virtually all domestic policy issues.
This is the backdrop for the new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, as he settles in as the fourth occupant of his office since 2010. There is some good news emerging through the smoke; reading at primary school has significantly improved – largely associated with the work of the reappointed Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb – and the number of children attending a good or outstanding school as judged by Ofsted has increased by almost 1.9 million since 2010.
Looming into view, however, is the crisis over financial resources. Secondary schools are, increasingly, under pressure and some multi-academy trusts are signalling significant concern, with occasional but rather more alarmist worries over long-term sustainability being expressed. Damian Hinds will need to prepare a case for a more generous settlement from the Treasury. In the next public expenditure round it will be advantageous to be seen to be fighting hard, unlike his ultimately doomed earlier predecessor, Patrick Gordon-Walker, in 1967.
The new Secretary of State is interested in education. He sought and acquired a place on the Education Select Committee and was noted for a good attendance record and forensic questioning of witnesses. He also demonstrated commitment to improving social mobility and a clear-sighted understanding of the importance of the early years for children. This approach probably underpins his acceptance of the new ‘opportunity areas’ as demonstrated by swiftly signing off the second batch of six.
Damian Hinds’s readiness to check details will be useful as the teacher recruitment portal moves from concept to delivery. He will, no doubt, be mindful of previous mishaps when public sector projects of a similar nature were launched.
The reason for his appointment to replace Justine Greening is largely seen as an attempt by the Prime Minister to ensure a more ‘May-like’ approach to education. While few would expect a major thrust for more grammar schools, there might still be a drive to increase capacity and ‘reach’. The academies programme is still on firm ground and will remain so, but a revamped framework for free schools is a strong possibility.