Policy is temporary, practice is permanent: Five ideas for our new Education Secretary


1st October 2021

’Have you heard, Gavin has just gone’ a MAT CEO announced as she arrived for a coffee a couple of Wednesdays ago. I’m not sure why  but I’ve always found it disarming when people often call ministers by their first name only, especially when they don’t know or like them.

Since I started teaching there have been fifteen different Secretaries of State for Education (take a bow number one, John Patten). That’s a lot of leaders. Any school which experienced a similar amount of leadership attrition to the DfE in the last few decades has probably spent more time in special measures than out. Share on X

I really hope that Nadhim Zahawi sticks around for a while; partly because longer-lasting ministers remain usefully accountable for the implementation of any policies, successful or otherwise.

He arrives at a challenging time for the Department. I actually have sympathy for the mistakes that Mr Williamson and his colleagues made during the last year. Let’s face it, we all made them in the face of brand new and rapidly changing dramas and crises. What is less forgivable was the sins of previous years –  how the DfE totally failed to prepare our education system for the pandemic. It was on their risk register.  As some papers I wrote for DfID last year showed, they could have learned from Sars (and Ebola, for that matter). Schools could not be expected to be ready for this on an individual basis. The DfE utterly neglected probably its most important system leadership role - pandemic preparation. Share on X  As a result it may have lost much of its leadership legitimacy amongst school leaders, educators and parents. Nonetheless, all of these people still look to our education department and those who run it for inspiration, guidance, clarity and occasionally, let’s admit it, just someone to blame.

If he lasts until the probable date of the next election, 2024, the Conservatives will have run our education system for fourteen years – one year longer than New Labour. Whilst Nadhim has helpfully focused his initial remarks on how he will listen to the sector he will of course want to make his mark rapidly – who in their right mind want to be a ‘no mark minister’? – and that will of course go beyond the careful implementation of existing policies. And his inbox and red box will be full of money-sapping policy ideas.  So Nadhim (if I may call you by your first name?), rather than add to this list, here are five ideas for ways of thinking that might inform your decision-making.

1) Spend spend spend – time, money and political capital – On the children and young people who are unlikely to go to university

This is a clear and present recovery danger. Before he resigned, Kevan Collins suggested that the most important young people to focus on were those 16-19 year olds who were probably in the final years of their formal education journeys, so had less time than any others to catch up on losses incurred during the pandemic. But of course it’s a more endemic problem, represented by the media’s obsession with an A level results day that only affects 40% of young people. It was so important that the new SoS first education visit was to Barnet College rather than a school – these signs are important. They now need to be backed up with action. Policy-wise, schools could wait. What happens to 16-25 year olds who are not going to University, in particular young people with special educational needs or leaving our care system, is a far more urgent issue. Share on X

2) Ask some tough questions about value for money in schools and MATs

The obvious need for additional, highly targeted recovery funding for schools shouldn’t mask a longer-term issue. I hope that the new SoS, with his business background, recognises the longer, bigger picture of a sector with a history of productivity failings. Massive increases in school spending (largely sustained by the conservatives) has led only to small gains in outcomes and even smaller reductions in inequality gaps. Additional school recovery funding is necessary, but shouldn’t sideline still-needed conversations about efficiencies and productivity. There are many ways to diagnose this, but given that staffing costs are generally more than 80% of school spend, I’d be tempted in particular to look at VfM issues around what appears to have been sector-wide increase in leadership posts with minimal class-based time, the growth in administrative roles, and the sustained rise in the numbers of teaching assistants.

3) Have a serious think about how genuine devolution of your department’s powers could support levelling up

Every politician is a localist until they get into power. I have no idea what Mr. Zahawi’s attitude to localism is, but civil servants have a naturally vested interest in avoiding decentralisation – witness the growth in direct oversight of schools through the academisation process (and inevitable growth in DFE academies-focussed posts), and the fake-devolution of the Regional Schools Commissioner process. He should look beyond his department’s advice and explore the fascinating, locally led innovations in system-level education and civic leadership both within MATs and in local and regional authorities. The work happening in Greater Manchester could be especially instructive around what is already possible, and what might evolve if his department had a genuine belief in a self-improving, locally led school system.

4) Build effective relationships with your new DCMS counterparts to make provision in arts, sports and other forms of  informal, exploratory learning bigger, better and fairer

From my experience of helping to lead a few culture-focussed programmes, cross-departmental work is incredibly difficult to get right. Shared accountability can lead to no accountability at all. However, as our current work with the National Citizens Service and other partners is showing, there is significant potential for the informal learning sector to make a huge contribution to addressing the lost opportunities for more exploratory, social learning that the pandemic prevented. The same pandemic also revealed some of the latent educational and altruistic assets – people, spaces and ideas that so many communities hold and want to do more with. Many civic and outward-focussed schools and MATs will capitalise on this, enabling and activating opportunities with a focus on the children who most need it.  However, this could be catalysed by a sustained cross-departmental approach – and yes, probably a new programme with new money attached – so that many more if not all communities  and young people can participate and benefit.

5) Avoid saying anything foolish or antagonising at your party conference

The temptation is always there in a party member-filled conference hall, but please avoid petty culture wars, ‘grammar schools in every town’ type rhetoric, or any kind of edu-version of cones hotlines.

The only crowd worth playing to is the crowd of half a million educators and education leaders, without whose support your policy ambitions will fade to implementation dust. Share on X

Someone once said to me that ‘policy is temporary, but practice is permanent.’ (Whoever it was, feel free to claim it.)  Good luck Minister, enjoy, and please keep listening.