Probably the most important thing to remember about the challenges faced by Damian Hinds, the new education secretary, is that they go well beyond schools.
With the addition of further and higher education to the Department for Education’s responsibilities in the early days of May’s premiership, a new set of issues were grafted onto to agenda of the education secretary, which in any age present some formidable challenges. Are universities doing enough to protect freedom of speech and diversity of perspective – and are students being charged too much to go there? Are we providing enough apprenticeships for those who do not wish to pursue university education? Is further education financially viable in its current model?
But overseeing these sectors is now even more complex in light of Brexit. For example, successive governments’ way to deal with skills gaps in key areas – such as agriculture, manufacturing and the care sector – has been to encourage immigration from Europe.
So there are some urgent issues that the government needs to get moving on, such as T levels. In the search for a respected, vocational alternative to A levels, T levels is a fantastic bit of branding, but there does not seem to have been a lot of fleshing out of the plan. The DfE will need to work closely with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, since it is essential that sectors take the lead in determining exactly what skills those entering their workplaces ought to have. The whole of skills policy needs a strong input from the world of work if it is to deliver for young people and for the economy.
But, crucially, the new education secretary needs to ensure that boundaries between schools and skills policy are properly maintained. An easy but erroneous answer to skills issues is to insist that schools teach them.
Damian Hinds’ Twitter feed is already awash with people suggesting their pet project be put into the curriculum. He should resist calls for such changes: the 2014 national curriculum is a strong document, which rightly prioritises a demanding, subject-based education for all young people up to 16. This is the best possible preparation for all children: whether they wish to pursue university, take up the new T levels, or the new apprenticeships it will also be a key part of Hinds’ role to ensure are created.
Keeping the aims of pre- and post-16 education distinct is important, but that is not say there is not work to be done in schools. Hinds has the advantage that Nick Gibb has retained his role as minister of state. Gibb brings a wealth of experience about the process of reform to date, as well as a keen sense of future policy challenges, as he outlined in his speech to Policy Exchange about the lessons of education policy innovation at last autumn’s Conservative Party Conference.
But like any policy innovations, recent reforms have also had unintended consequences. Regional schools commissioners were created to provide support for successful schools wishing to become academies and to ensure failing schools were handed over to high-performing academy trusts. But they now employ nearly 600 staff, which is more than Ofsted has for schools inspection – and they seem endlessly expansionist, with the inevitable external criticism that follows: is that what was intended at the start? Making sure their work is in-line with their original role and cost-effective is an important task for the new education secretary.
A focus on the curriculum is essential to realise the promise of the revolution in school structure, started under Blair and accelerated by Gove. Without a robust approach to the planning and resourcing the curriculum, we will not fulfil the promise of academies and free schools. At Policy Exchange, we are researching the lessons of the success of phonics, when the government led the drive to set standards and raise quality, harnessing other powerful forces within the system. This work will also focus on reducing teacher workload and freeing them to improve outcomes.
To benefit from a great curriculum, children need to be able to engage positively with school, which means acquiring both learning behaviours and reading skills. There is work to be done in early years, where there is a growing trend of children arriving at school without the socialisation once taken for granted, with language use significantly behind their peers, or not having been toilet-trained.
Given that we have, rightly, asked more of our primary schools in terms of the academic content they will familiarise young children with, ensuring that families are properly supported in making children school-ready is an area that needs attention.
The responsibilities of the DfE are broad, but the opportunity to make a difference – now and long into the future – is enormous. Dealing with both the inherited issues created by previous bold reform and the new complexities generated by Brexit will require a deft hand, but there is a positive story to tell on education and plenty of good left to do.