What will the new DfE mean for schools?

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Teachers danced in the corridors and Twitter rejoiced – what else could it be but the removal of Michael Gove as Education Secretary? Now, as the new members of the Department for Education settle into their roles, we consider what the latest line-up could mean for teachers and their pupils.

July saw the biggest Cabinet reshuffle by David Cameron since becoming Prime Minister in 2010. Dubbed the ‘cull of the middle class men’, it saw more than a dozen male ministers leave the government, making way for a new tranche of younger MPs, many of whom were women. But how is this new line-up likely to affect schools, teachers and pupils?

The new DfE – who are they?
The new Department for Education breaks down as follows:

  • Secretary of State for Education, and Minister for Women and Equalities – Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP
  • Minister of State – Rt Hon David Laws MP (jointly with the Cabinet Office)
  • Minister of State – Nick Boles MP (jointly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)
  • Minister of State – Nick Gibb MP
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State – Edward Timpson MP
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State – Lord Nash
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State – Jo Swinson MP (jointly with the Department for Business,Innovation and Skills)
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State – Sam Gyimah MP (jointly with the Cabinet Office)

At the head of the department is Nicky Morgan with overall responsibility for the work of the DfE, including early years, adoption and child protection, teachers’ pay, the school curriculum, school improvement, and the establishment of free schools and academies. As minister for women and equalities, she also has responsibility for policy on women, sexual orientation and transgender equality, as well as cross-government equality strategy and legislation.

David Laws becomes the Minister of State for schools in the DfE and Minister of State in the cabinet office. He’s on record saying that the education system is being damaged by ‘excessive politicisation’ and wants consensus with the teaching profession. We can expect him to seek more agreement from teachers before implementing reforms in the future, as he recently told the ATL: ‘I think that consensus, and the policy stability that can come with consensus, is something worth pursuing, provided it is on the basis of effective policies which work.’

Nick Boles is the Minister of State for Skills and Equalities jointly for the DfE and BIS. His responsibilities include further education, apprenticeships and equal marriage implementation.

Universities have welcomed Mr Boles, but he has some significant challenges ahead of him, including making a key decision about the future funding for 16 to 18-year-olds and the proposed reform of apprenticeships. The fact that he retains briefs in both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education is likely to lead to closer working relationships between the two departments.

Nick Gibb has been brought back into the DfE as Minister of State. He was previously a Minister of State for Schools from May 2010 to September 2012. Mr Gibb is on record as saying he sees the value in teaching unions, although he maintains they are wrong in their approach to the reforms the coalition government is making to the profession. He is also opposed to progressive education, which advocates that education should be child-led rather than teacher-led. If he maintains this view in his new role, he is likely to support policies reaffirming the importance of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Edward Timpson is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families (from September 2012). His responsibilities include adoption, fostering and residential care home reform, child protection, special educational needs and disability, family law and justice, children’s and young people’s services, school sport, Cafcass, and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

Sam Gyimah is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, whose responsibilities include childcare and early years. Previously, he was Government Whip and Lord Commissioner of the HM Treasury, and prior to that, he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron from 2012 to 2013.

Lord Nash is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, with responsibilities that include academies, free schools, university technical colleges, studio, independent, faith, grammar and boarding schools, as well as school organisation, school governance, DfE review and the Education Funding Agency.

What will this mean for teaching?
Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, has been moved to Chief Whip. He insists this isn’t a demotion, but it means his job will now be to keep order within the party and to ensure MPs vote in line with the party’s ideas.

The teaching unions are delighted by Mr Gove’s departure, claiming that the Education Secretary had paid the price for his ‘ideological drive’ to overhaul the schools system in the face of huge opposition from many in the teaching profession. They say Mr Gove had clearly lost the support of the profession and parents, in part due to pay and pensions restraint, and in part because his vision for education was simply wrong.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the NUT, said his pursuit of the unnecessary and often unwanted free schools and academies programme, the use of unqualified teachers, the failure to address the school places crisis and endless ill-thought out reforms to examinations and the curriculum had been his hallmark in office.

So will Nicky Morgan bring something different to Michael Gove’s ideological drive, perhaps in the form of measured, pragmatic reform of the education system?

Nicky Morgan, the new 41-year-old Education Secretary, is reputed to be very different from her predecessor, Michael Gove. A former corporate lawyer, she is now one of two mothers in the Cabinet. Her only foray into controversy has been gay marriage – on which she remains resolutely opposed. So if she maintains her track record for avoiding controversy, will she play safe in her new role? At the very least, Ms Morgan will want to slow the pace of Mr Gove’s educational reforms. Already, she has moved on three of Michael Gove’s key policy advisers despite telling MPs she was committed to her predecessor’s controversial reforms.

However, she has also stated for the record that she shares Mr Gove’s total commitment to creating an education system that enables young people, regardless of their background, to unlock every ounce of their potential. What this means in the run up to the next general election we will see, because we have yet to hear any concrete changes to existing policy – but we can surmise that the reasons behind Mr Gove’s departure were politically motivated, and that Ms Morgan will want Education to be seen to be in a safe pair of hands, at least until after the next election.

Michael Gove’s dismantling of the structures which support schools, the antagonism which he displayed to the teaching profession and the increasing evidence of chaos in the bodies is probably what made Mr Gove more of a liability than an asset to David Cameron in the run-up to the next election.

Certainly, Mr Gove was driven by his commitment to improving the life chances of young people. Many of his reforms have been controversial, but there is no doubt he has had a significant impact on the education system. He had a radical vision for transforming education but the problem was he failed to bring the profession with him.

For Ms Morgan, her job will be to rebuild trust and confidence between government and teachers so that the improvements can endure.

An important caveat…
David Cameron said the selection of appointments to the Cabinet reflects modern Britain, and his changes to the Department for Education might be a step in the right direction. Certainly, Nicky Morgan’s appointment will be popular in staff-rooms.

But it must also be remembered that every minister at the Education department went to private school. As such, their overwhelming experience of education is of working hard and passing academically focused exams. This makes them well placed to enable more children to achieve what they themselves achieved – more and better GCSEs and A Levels.

However, given this personal experience, it will be hard for the new education ministers to put themselves in the position of the 30 to 40 per cent of pupils who remain unlikely to achieve at least five ‘good’ GCSE passes. This isn’t their experience, it isn’t their children’s experience, and it isn’t the experience of their friends or their friends’ children. And it could result in short-sighted policies, because, actually, they don’t reflect modern Britain.

To succeed, Nicky Morgan and her colleagues at the DfE will need to support and incentivise schools to offer credible and relevant alternatives to all children, despite this being outside their personal experience.

Ultimately, having no one in the Education department who went to state school could become a liability.

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