During the period of Theresa May Mark One – that’s to say, the time between her election as Conservative Party leader and last year’s general election – the Prime Minister made a speech about schools. Part of it was described how universities could help to sponsor or support them. (The Government will be producing proposals tomorrow to further its manifesto commitment to review the funding of tertiary education, and Rebecca Coulson will be writing about its plans and university support on this site tomorrow morning.) The rest of the speech fell into three main sections. May wanted independent schools, like universities, to support and sponsor state ones. She also wanted to lift the restrictions on new faith school and grammar schools places.
The aim of these changes was more good school places – what she called “the Great Meritocracy”. The speech was overseen by Nick Timothy and reflected much of his thinking: the prioritising of social reform above social mobility and social justice; in other words, targeting policy to help the “Just About Managings” or, as the speech put it in language that has since been dropped, “ordinary working class people”. Michael Gove, some of whose reforms Mark Lehain wrote about on this site yesterday, put it differently, but his focus was on the same end: more good school places. So was Nicky Morgan’s. She furthered the legacy she was left, though with a stress on the whole development of the pupil, rather than solely on standards, exams and results.
This brings us to Justine Greening. A key reason why the Prime Minister sought to move her from Education to Work and Pensions was, very simply, that Greening was visibly uneasy with the faith and grammar school aspects of that Timothy speech. Her replacement by Damian Hinds was one the few successes of January’s reshuffle – in the sense of a senior Minister moving to the post for which he was actually intended. Unlike Gove who, when first appointed to Environment, began setting off fireworks almost immediately, Hinds has been keeping his powder dry. He gives his first major interview to the Sunday Times today, and the theme of the schools parts of it is back to the future.
The new Education Secretary has already approved the Nick Gibb push to get times tables taught in primary schools, which made no progress under Greening. He wants to take the cap off new faith schools (“where there is parental demand and where there is a need for places, I want it to be possible to create those new schools” ) and allow existing grammar schools to expand. May Mark Two does not have the same room for Parliamentary manoeuvre as May Mark One, but Hinds will be able to make progress on both of these aims without Commons votes. Greening wanted to prevent parents from withdrawing their children from sex education classes. Hinds will end that approach.
The beaux ideal for Conservative education secretaries is surely to carry out the necessary reforms without unnecessarily antagonising teachers – not an easy task given the long move leftwards in the profession, and the recent squeeze in the growth of funding. The Party’s social care proposals got a lot of attention during last year’s election, to put it mildly, but although school spending gained rather less, it may have been just as decisive. Hinds doesn’t touch on the issue in his interview. Nor does he deal in any depth with social mobility, and the plan left to him by his predecessor. But he is evidently in the job he wants. Rather than seeking quick media hits, he has been quietly getting policy in place. If he can’t win a hearing among teachers, we doubt if any Tory Minister can.