Damian Hinds says that as Conservative Education Secretary, the post he has occupied since January 2018, “there are always arguments to be won”, and you have to face up to the “forces of small-c conservatism”.
He adds that “if you stand still, you will go backwards”. But Hinds, described by his fellow parliamentarians as a man who has entered the Cabinet on merit, has an aversion to extravagant language and cannot be regarded as a publicity seeker.
In this interview, he sets out to show how reasonable his policies are. When he declares “this is a Christian country… it still has, at the core of its institutions, traditions which are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition,” his tone is studiously reasonable.
Hinds defends his refusal to lift the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools by insisting there are there are “good community and integration reasons” for keeping it. His decision has angered the Roman Catholic Church, to which he himself belongs.
Before becoming a minister, he opposed the cap, and his appointment raised hopes in Catholic circles that he would use his power to sweep it away.
The Education Secretary instead says his “number one priority” is “to bear down on workload for teachers”, so fewer of them leave the profession.
He wants to accelerate the academies programme and urges ConHome readers to come forward as governors.
On Brexit, he says the Prime Minister has reached “a very good deal”, a point which tends to be forgotten amid “legitimate” concerns about the backstop. He observes that rapid progress is needed, and declines to say whether the Cabinet would continue to “hold their nerve” if the Prime Minister informed ministers she could only get concessions on the backstop at the EU summit on 21st March.
A paradox of his career is that he has risen higher than his good friend and contemporary Jacob Rees-Mogg, while remaining much less well known.
ConHome: “How did you beat Jacob Rees-Mogg and become President of the Oxford Union?”
Hinds [laughing]: “Let’s start with the important stuff.”
ConHome: “I think actually our readers are intensely interested. You were in the same college…”
Hinds: “We were in the same college [Trinity College, Oxford].”
ConHome: “You’re co-religionists.”
Hinds: “Yes, but that’s not desperately relevant,”
ConHome: “I’m not suggesting the Pope had anything to do with it.”
Meg Powell-Chandler [Hinds’ special adviser]: “Actually…”
Hinds: “Actually, Jacob was the first person I met at university, literally the first person. It’s one of those things you do when you arrive, and you have all the first years in a room, and I turned to the bloke next to me and said ‘Hello, I’m Damian’, and it turned out to be Jacob.
“He wasn’t dressed the same as all the other undergraduates. He just happened to be standing next to me. And we’ve been friends ever since.
“And the answer to your question about elections. As you know, there are lots of undergraduate elections, and I was lucky enough on that occasion. There’s not much more to it than that.”
ConHome: “Well actually, oddly enough, the most candid thing Boris Johnson ever wrote about politics was an essay about how to become President of the Oxford Union, in a book, The Oxford Myth, edited by his sister, Rachel.
“He said that what you need is ‘a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges’ who will get the vote out for you in their respective colleges.”
Hinds: “‘Stooges’ is one of those words you only ever actually hear in student politics.”
ConHome: “Michael Gove has admitted he was a Johnson stooge in those days. So you too had a collection of disciplined and deluded stooges? They weren’t deluded in your case.”
Hinds: “Lovely people. Actually there were three of us in that election, all three from the same college, and I think that was very, very unusual.”
ConHome: “Who was the third?”
Hinds: “Stephanie Young, now Stephanie Tyrer. That was a very unusual set-up. There were many other elections that Jacob won while we were undergraduates, but on that occasion I was lucky enough to come out on top.”
ConHome: “And did you enjoy being President?”
Hinds: “I loved it, yes.”
ConHome: “And who were your most famous visitors?”
Hinds: “I had the summer term. My favourite visitors, we had Alvin Stardust, who also sang, and Will Carling, the Rugby player.”
ConHome: “And who are your political heroes?”
Hinds: “It’s so clichéd to say Mrs Thatcher is your political hero, but point me to the person on our side of the Chamber who wouldn’t say that.
“As it happens, I’m a child of the Eighties [he was born in 1969], grew up in Manchester, it was a difficult time, proper divides in politics, and in the earlier part of that period I was a Leftie.
“I came to my realisation aged 16, 17 and joined our party, so I’ve got a reasonable pedigree given I’m now 49. But it was a realisation rather than something automatic.”
ConHome: “And how did you realise?”
Hinds: “Well I think the Eighties was an amazing time to grow up, partly because there was so much politics. Everything from the Iron Curtain and communism versus capitalism through the Miners’ Strike and privatisation.
“Some things we got wrong as well as some things we got right of course. But as a teenager you couldn’t help but be politically very conscious of what was going on around you.
“And I came to the conclusion, first of all that I was a very lucky boy, coming from a strong family and going to a good school [Saint Ambrose College, a Roman Catholic grammar school].
“But I came to the conclusion that the way to make more boys and girls lucky boys and girls was to have a strong economy with enterprise but also with social responsibility, and with people looking out for each other. And sometimes we got on the wrong side of that, towards the end of the 1980s, of course, in terms of how people perceived us.”
ConHome: “Do you have a favourite monarch?”
Hinds: “The Queen.”
ConHome: “And of her predecessors, of whom there are 39 including William the Conqueror?”
Hinds: “Are there only 39, all the way back to 1066?”
ConHome: “Yes, it’s not that many. Of course there were various people like Queen Victoria and George III..”
Hinds: “…who upped the average. Wow. I didn’t realise that. So I’m not going to profess to have a favourite monarch, other than of course Her Majesty. I do think the Queen is just so off the scale of amazingness and a role model for us all.”
ConHome: “When I put the same question to your predecessor but one, Nicky Morgan, she said Henry VIII. But when I and her special advisers expressed amazement, she switched to Elizabeth I.”
A division bell rang, and Hinds went off to vote. When he got back, the interview continued with a question about Brexit.
ConHome: “If Theresa May came back to Cabinet and said, ‘I can get something on the backstop, but not until the EU summit on 21st March,’ would you be happy to hold your nerve until then?”
Hinds [after a pause]: “I think the Prime Minister needs all of us to be behind her in this. Only she can know the exact dynamic of the negotiation, and exactly what is the best route forward.
“I won’t rehearse all the stuff about we need to get a deal, because clearly we do – I say clearly, it’s clear to me we absolutely do. Clearly already time is very short, and we need to make good and rapid progress.
“Obviously there are real worries about the backstop and it’s very legitimate for people to have worries about that, and legitimate to be seeking assurances.
“It is also true, and we must remember to keep saying it, that the deal overall is a very good deal. There’s been so much talk about the relatively I’m not going to say small issues that sometimes we don’t talk about the thing itself.”
ConHome: “But would you hold your nerve, and would your Cabinet colleagues hold their collective nerve, until 21st March?”
Hinds: “I think everybody is holding their nerve.”
ConHome: “Now on education, how important is it for an Education Secretary to be talked about? There have been some, people like Tony Crosland, who’ve gone on the offensive, who have been talked about – since Rab Butler, there’s been Crosland, Thatcher, Baker, Blunkett, Gove, and probably a few others, probably people like Boyle. Do you think that’s important, or not really?”
Hinds: “I actually think what’s really important is for the system to be working well, not letting down any of our children anywhere, and for the person doing my job, and all our ministers, and the whole department, to be making sure that happens.
“And sometimes that does require, and it certainly did when Michael [Gove] was doing this job, a bold and vociferous and constant presence, at other times less so.
“But there are always arguments to be won in this sphere, because there are forces of small-c conservatism – which is definitely not the same as our Conservatism – in the education world.
“And as a Conservative Education Secretary, you need to be facing up to those. If you stand still, you will go backwards.”
ConHome: “Would it be fair to say you’re more focussed on heads and teachers than on parents?”
Hinds: “It wouldn’t be fair to say I’m more focussed on heads and teachers. But without heads and teachers the parents would be very upset.
“And we have had a problem in the last few years with making sure we have enough teachers. So we haven’t recruited quite enough, and we’ve had too many leaving. And the biggest reason they leave is because of workload.
“So I’ve made my number one priority to bear down on workload for teachers. Which turns out to be not nearly as simple a task as people might expect.
“Because although in a popular image there’s all these forms that you’re making teachers fill in, I’ve tried very hard to find those forms and they basically don’t exist.
“It’s a much more endemic, complex set of circumstances that makes teachers work on average 50 plus hours a week, which again is much more than people would expect to hear.
“And I think from a parent’s point of view they don’t want to know that teachers are spending a huge amount of time other than teaching their children. It’s all the other stuff.”
ConHome: “If it’s not form-filling, what is it?”
Hinds: “The three biggest things are very large amounts of lesson-planning…”
ConHome: “Well that’s difficult to avoid, isn’t it?”
Hinds: “No, not necessarily. It depends on what you do. Obviously I want teachers planning lessons. And schools do much better lesson-planning than when we were at school, and that is a very good thing.
“But if you are producing lesson-plans because you think the Ofsted inspector is going to see them, and stockpiling ring binders full of these things – this does happen in many schools, this is not a productive use of time.
“Similarly marking. And email.”
ConHome: “Another problem is that good teachers are intelligent and capable people. If the economy’s doing well, they can go off and do other things.”
Hinds: “That’s true. If you’ve got four per cent unemployment that’s a bad time for anybody to be recruiting, because it’s a very competitive market. But I just say our vacancies are more important than everybody else’s.”
ConHome: “You did a piece on ConHome saying you firmly believe in academies. But are they being created quickly enough, do you think? Do you have enough sponsors? Or has your department been gradually reducing the financial incentives?”
Hinds: “Well it shouldn’t be about financial incentives. It is possible to help with the costs of conversion, but actually the big advantage of being an academy is about autonomy, and about being able to combine with other schools.
“We’ve just passed a really important milestone of more than half the children in the state sector being in academies, which is a great thing. We’re still seeing more coming forward for conversion. I would like to see that pace continue and accelerate.
“We also need more people, I hope ConHome readers will step up to this, to be governors and trustees. When you’ve got a devolved system, with lots of autonomy, the role of a governor can become a much bigger thing.
“And the academies programme is now for the first time since early Blair under threat from the Labour Party. It was originally a Blair invention.
“Michael Gove and Nick Gibb put turbo-chargers under that programme, massively increased the numbers, and actually I hear from Members of Parliament on all sides what a difference academisation has made.”
ConHome: “You gave a speech the other day about children’s character. How do you build children’s character without some ethical or religious input?”
Hinds: “Well I don’t think you do do it without some ethical input. I distinguish character and resilience from values and virtues, but they go together. So character and resilience, I talk about ‘believe you can achieve’, “be able to stick with the task in hand’, ‘understand the link between the effort I put in today and the reward I do or might get in the future’, ‘being able to bounce back when things go wrong’.
“All those things would also make you a really good criminal, and I don’t want you to be a criminal. So I also want you to be grounded in friendship, kindness, community spirit, all those values.
“Some people will get those through a religious education, others will get it through a non-religious but still an ethically based education.”
ConHome: “So what in your opinion is the role of Christianity in politics, both generally and for you personally? I asked Nicky Morgan this.”
Hinds: “What did she say?”
ConHome: “She said the Anglican Church is very important to her.”
Hinds: “Well the Anglican Church is very important to me too. I’m going to go a wee bit further. Look, this is a Christian country. I mean these days it is a multicultural country as well, and there are many different faiths represented, and vast numbers of people who have no religious faith.
“But it still has, at the core of its institutions, traditions which are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. And in Parliament you find – I’ve never actually done the maths, but it’s always felt to me that there’s a disproportionate number of people of some religious faith. Not necessarily Christian, but some religious faith.
“We start every day with Prayers, this little segment of the day, three minutes, the only part which is not broadcast, and I think whether people are Anglican or some other denomination, or an atheist, actually the majority of Members of Parliament I think appreciate that as a moment of reflection and thinking about the day ahead, thinking about why we’re here.
“Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Chaplain, does this prayer about remembering not to put personal self-interest in the way of what we do.”
ConHome: “What’s your view of free schools? It’s gone a bit quiet on free schools.”
Hinds: “We’re still doing this. We’ve got hundreds in the pipeline. Free schools are a type of academy, but brand new. They’ve brought a great deal of innovation. By bringing something different to an area, they create diversity and choice and a bit of competition with other schools.”
ConHome: “Is the Catholic Church still opting out of free schools – they were very cross, weren’t they, about the admissions cap?”
Hinds: “And that is still there. We’ve got a 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools. But they can now – and others can as well – open new voluntary aided schools.”
ConHome: “Why have you got the cap on free schools?”
Hinds: “There are good reasons for wanting to be able to ensure diversity in school provision. But the voluntary aided school route has always been there. The process for application is different from that for a free school, it has to have the backing of the local authority, but it’s been around since 1944 and has worked well.
“It’s mostly associated with the Catholic Church but actually there are Anglican VA schools as well, and indeed other faiths. It’s actually never technically stopped being possible to open a VA school. There just wasn’t any money available.”
ConHome: “But is there a lobby within the Conservative Party against lifting this cap on faith-based admissions to free schools? Is that part of the trouble?
“Because oddly enough, you seem to be standing up for the more traditional socialist way of doing things, even if it goes back to 1944. The Labour Party would have less to disagree with – local democratic control and all that.”
Hinds: “Free schools came in under the Coalition Government and there is obviously a reason why they came in as they did, and they’ve been a great addition to the schools system, including by the way having schools of religious character coming in, but with a cap of 50 per cent when oversubscribed.
“There was one large denomination which did not feel able to open free schools, which was the Catholic Church. And I was keen that every denomination should be able to open new schools. And of course the voluntary aided route isn’t only open to them, but it is open to them.”
ConHome: “And Catholic voluntary aided schools are opening, are they?”
Hinds: “There’s a round of applications that’s just happening as we speak.”
ConHome: “I still don’t understand why you refused to get rid of this cap. You don’t need legislation. You can decide, can’t you?”
Hinds: “There are good community integration reasons why the cap is as it is.”
ConHome: “This applies to Muslims as well.”
Hinds: “It applies to all faiths, in the same way that the opportunity to open a voluntary aided school applies to all faiths. We don’t make things specifically for individual religions.”
ConHome: “But would that be a worry, that you would then get some purely Muslim schools?”
Hinds: “There are purely Muslim schools, there are Jewish schools, there are Catholic schools, there are Anglican schools and they all play an important role. The key thing is that there is no significant religion in this country that wants to be able to open faith schools and can’t.”
ConHome: “I still haven’t got to the heart of your objection to lifting the cap.”
Hinds: “As I say, there are good community and integration reasons.”
ConHome: “What does that mean?”
Hinds: “It means it is right, and this is why the system was set up as it was initially, to be able to say, ‘Yes, we want to be able to have faith schools, but we also want to be able to have multiple ways, this is one of the ways, to make sure that we have full integration of communities. And that’s one of the ways we do it.”
ConHome: “And did you change your mind about this? Were you in favour of lifting the cap?”
Hinds: “If you looked hard, I think you would probably find a record of me somewhere in Parliament speaking about the cap before I was in a ministerial position.”
ConHome: “In your reckless youth.”
Hinds: “I wasn’t aware of all the considerations at the time.”