As schools up and down the country ready themselves for the half-term break, we couldn’t resist making our own assessment of the new Education Secretary’s performance since entering office with his very own half-term report:
To many, Damian Hinds’ appointment as Education Secretary four months ago was surprising, but his ability to be liked and generate respect from the sector relative to his predecessors has been even more so.
Seemingly (and refreshingly) less occupied with Brexit than other Cabinet members, Hinds has been able to get on with the job at hand and has already made good progress in setting out what he wants to achieve and by when.
Hinds has been described as a “dashing and accomplished speaker” by Michael Gove so it’s no surprise he’s been able to win over parts of the sector so quickly through rhetoric alone. Considered as quiet and hardworking by many of his Cabinet and parliamentary colleagues, Hinds doesn’t lack ambition, but crucially, nor does he lack compassion or a sense of purpose. This has been core to his approach since becoming an MP and these should prove to be popular traits with both Conservative MPs and party members, as well as win him some fans from within the sector itself.
Hinds has been described as having been “brought to Cabinet on the basis of ability” by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Having served on the Education Select Committee, as Exchequer Secretary and Employment Minister, Hinds has been at a significant advantage compared to other, less experienced Cabinet appointments; in hindsight his career progress is unsurprising.
Equally, the fact that Hinds has yet to make any sort of public or political gaffe during his time in public office is impressive. A person that “doesn’t make mistakes”, according to his colleagues, he appears to be a steady pair of hands. However, this could make any miss-step more significant if it does occur, particularly given the impending end to his honeymoon period as Secretary of State when criticism from the sector is likely to emerge.
Hinds will have to keep working hard to maintain his credibility with the sector, particularly regarding grammar schools. He will need to make sure his indirect peddling of that agenda remains just that, and doesn’t become a standalone priority. As long as he attaches “social mobility” to the selective education question, he should be fine.
With three major speeches so far to his name, Hinds’ priorities are clear: social mobility, teaching as a profession, and schools’ funding. But to what extent have his efforts in these areas been successful and what areas does he still need to make progress in?
To (re)coin a phrase, Hinds has been ‘continuity Greening’ in respect of the social mobility agenda.
Building on his time as Chair of the APPG for Social Mobility, it’s encouraging to see Hinds so committed to social mobility, with early intervention, quality of teaching and personal resilience all featuring heavily in his rhetoric so far.
However, his methods for improving social mobility have been questioned by those on the left, namely his counterpart Angela Rayner. Rayner has used UCL’s latest research which shows grammar school pupils gain no social or emotional advantages by age 14, to argue that “the Prime Minister’s pet project of grammar school expansion will fail even on its own terms”.
Her comments follow the government’s controversial response to its 2016 Schools that work for everyone consultation, which set out measures intended to foster cross-sector collaboration to improve outcomes for pupils across the education system. This included through expanding selective education places to more disadvantaged children, making an agreement with the independent school sector to help improve outcomes for pupils of all backgrounds, and expanding support for faith schools.
Commenting on the response, Hinds said: “Children only get one chance at an education and they deserve the best, wherever they live and whatever their background. [The proposals] … give parents greater choice in looking at schools that are right for their family – and give children of all backgrounds access to a world-class education”.
Clearly, the measures announced are designed to boost social mobility and ensure more young people have access to the best education – although Hinds has been somewhat restricted by the government’s small parliamentary majority in terms of how radical he can be.
Politically, it’s quite sensible for new Education Secretaries to give teachers some of what they want upon taking office, which is exactly what Hinds has done.
Speaking at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference, Hinds outlined his promises to reduce teachers’ workloads. He also confirmed that he will not announce new primary school tests or changes to the curriculum during this parliament, a marked departure from Michael Gove’s style of leadership. This will no doubt reassure teachers, but at the same time, they should be cautious about this apparent lack of reforming prowess.
However, Hinds will be judged based on delivery, not his rhetorical bark – that’s the easy bit. Whereas Gove failed to take the teaching profession with him, Hinds will need to make sure it is alongside him every step of the way if he is to raise school standards. There shouldn’t, however, be any issues here given his clear focus on social mobility.
Hinds has made good progress in gaining the confidence of teachers, but he now needs to deliver on his promises. Ultimately, he will be judged by teachers on the results he achieves for their pupils – and their own workloads.
Hinds’ hands are tied more on school funding than they are on any other issue, and he has failed to make the progress he would perhaps have liked as a result.
Speaking to the National Association of Head Teachers in Liverpool earlier this month, Hinds acknowledged that it was “challenging for schools to make up the numbers”, and added that “society asks much more of schools than we did a generation ago”. This includes tackling greater social pressures such as children’s mental health.
In the short term, he has not pledged any extra cash but has suggested making the case for increased school funding in the next public spending round.
In any case, convincing the sector that he will in some way solve or improve the school funding crisis, as so many are now calling it, will require a certain amount of expectation management, or else he faces becoming another Secretary of State dismissed by sector.