The news was slipped out on the same day that Article 50 was moved. National curriculum tests for seven years olds are set to be replaced by teacher assessment. Justine Greening said that she wants to support children to fulfill their potential and to “free up teachers to do what they do best”. “Teaching unions welcomed the consultation,” the Guardian reported.
The day before, it had emerged that the pass grade for GCSEs is to be lowered from a Grade Five to a Grade Four. Previously, the former was to be described as a “good pass”; it will now be described as a “strong pass”, while the latter will be called a “standard pass”. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, had written a defence of the original arrangement only last summer, arguing that “our qualifications were becoming devalued and were failing to prepare students to succeed in a demanding economy”.
In the autumn, the Education Secretary backed off a pledge made in the last Conservative education manifesto to require pupils failing reading and maths assessments at the end of primary school to resit the exams in their first year of secondary school. She has also dropped a National Teaching Service plan to recruit good teachers for schools in deprived areas.
Some Conservative insiders see a pattern. “Greening is dismantling significant parts of the reforming legacy handed on to her by Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan,” one told ConservativeHome. This morning, we give the case for the prosecution and the case for the defence.
The first starts with the claim that the Education Secretary is saddled with a flagship policy that she would not have chosen herself – Theresa May’s plan to relax the restrictions on new grammar schools, and to allow free schools to offer selective education.
These are key proposals in party as well as educational terms: for many party members, they have helped to define the Prime Minister as “one of us”, given the strong support for grammars within both the parliamentary and voluntary party. But they are hated by what many Tories call “the Blob”: the nexus of teaching unions and educational theorists reared on the comprehensive ideal – and on child-centred doctrines of what schools should be and teachers should do. These became orthodoxy for the generation that followed the Plowden Report, until the Blair and Gove reformation which seeks to place knowledge-centred learning at the heart of education.
“Greening knows that she is stuck with the grammar school policy,” said one Tory with a background in education. “So she is appeasing the Blob by discreetly giving it bits of what she wants.” The claim rests on three foundations.
First, that many like other Education Secretaries before her, Greening’s instincts reflect her own experience at school. She is the first Conservative holder of the post to have been fully educated at a comprehensive school. According to these critics, she thus has little sympathy for a push to restore a form of schools in which she has no personal investment.
Second, that changes within the department have undermined the inheritance left to her by Gove and Morgan: a name that tends to come up is Tom Shinner, previously Director of Strategy at the department, who has taken the journey – like many of the brightest and most ambitious in the civil service – to the Department for Exiting the European Union.
And, third, that while David Cameron had an interventionist interest in educational reform (the push for compulsory academisation was driven from Downing Street) Theresa May’s is less. Which, these Tories claim, means that Greening has more space within which to manoeuvre.
So much for the prosecution case. Now let’s hear it for the defence.
This begins by challenging the assumptions behind the question. “Michael was a great education secretary,” one Conservative MP with an interest in education told ConservativeHome, “but it doesn’t follow that everything he did was right, and should therefore be cast in stone.” According to this viewpoint, Greening’s changes to the Gove/Morgan testing regime have been in response to pressure not from the teaching union, but from Tory MPs, who feel that exams, not tests, are the most reliable means of raising standards. “Let’s face it: there are too many tests,” one said. “It is no bad thing to have a Secretary of State who listens.”
Furthermore, some Conservative backers of grammar schools dispute the claim she is somehow opposed to them. “I get the impression that she is getting to grips with the policy,” one said. The change to the GCSE pass grade was arguably driven by the fact that a Grade Four pass would always have been sufficient for pupils to avoid mandatory post-16 resits for GCSEs in English and maths. And the National Teaching Service plan simply wasn’t working, say Greening’s defenders. Finally, there is the prejudice factor. Some of those friends maintain that it is always tougher for women politicians, not least in the less modernised parts of the Conservative Party.
So who’s right? Some conclusions stand out. One is that Greening is fortunate not to be following Gove directly. The former Education Secretary has his own blob of admirers in the centre-right press – this site owns up to being part of it – and his friends would have been on her back, 24/7, had she succeeded him immediately and made the changes that she has. Instead, she has succeeded Nicky Morgan, a prominent Remainer and one of the Daily Mail’s plentiful supply of hate figures (for example, see here). Alterations by Greening to what Morgan left her are unlikely to raise the hackles of Brexiteer journalists.
Another is that while the Prime Minister may be less personally engaged with education reform than her predecessor, Downing Street is more centralised and interventionist than ever – which is another way of reminding readers of the grip on government execised by her co-chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. The Education Secretary will not therefore have signed off herself, without Number Ten’s approval, the proposal that to date has proved far more politically explosive than any of those cited above – namely, the planned change to the school funding formula.
“It’s top of my list when asked by the Whips what’s bothering me,” one Tory MP told this site. “It’s a disaster,” said another. To boil the matter down to its political essentials, rural and suburban-based Conservative MPs and party activists expected their local schools to gain from a simplified formula. As Mark Wallace has explained on this site, it has turned out to be less simplified than they had hoped. There are winners; there are losers. The latter complain to the hilltops; the former pocket their gains. A consultation into the proposals has just closed. But Greening is trapped in a device of her and May’s own devising. For without more money from the Treasury, it is impossible to see how there can be no Tory losers.
Talking of money, the backdrop for the Education Secretary is particularly hazardous. Schools and teachers are never slow to call for “more resources”. But it is Greening’s bad luck to be left standing when the music is slowing down. The IFS claims that spending per pupil in England is expected to tumble by 6.5 per cent in real terms between 2016 and 2020. Head teachers are lobbying their MPs vigorously – citing knock-on effects on school pension funds and teacher recruitment – and seeking to stir up parents.
The news is not all grim for the Education Secretary. For example, she was able to announce a £2.4 billion education funding programme earlier this week. None the less, the problem with the funding formula leaves her in a very tight spot. But perhaps the biggest question for her is not whether she is preserving the legacy of other Education Secretaries, but whether or not she will be able to leave one of her own.
Only last week, she gave a big speech on social mobility – an idea that, given her own experience, she might want to make her own: it has, as she said, “characterised my own personal and political life”. But, to date, the Government’s drive to improve technical education – an important part of any social mobility policy package – is more associated with Downing Street than the Education Department.
This is part of a bigger picture. The Government’s effective Commons majority is small. Number Ten keeps Cabinet Ministers on a very tight leash. Announcements are minimised. Central intervention is very pronounced. For better or worse, Greening is having difficulty in establishing a profile of her own. But this scarcely makes her unique. The tale of her time in government to date thus turns out to be part of a bigger story.