Challenges mounting as fifth Education Secretary in four months takes over - Andy Brown

Spare a thought for the new Secretary of State for Education. If you can remember her name. Gillian Keegan is the fifth occupant in a little over four months and can’t be feeling entirely sure how long she has got her feet under the desk for.

Or perhaps it might be better to spare a thought for people working in education and their students. In September 2021 many of them celebrated when they saw the back of Gavin Williamson. He was the one who made such a hash of the exam system during Covid that no one was quite sure who was taking exams or how they would be marked. He was also the one who spent his time as a Minister for Defence making daft suggestions about putting rocket launchers on tractors and using old ferries as landing craft.

He was replaced by Nadim Zahawi. Who had just got his head around the big issues when he was moved on ten months later. His replacement, Michelle Donelan didn’t get that luxury. She moved herself on. Only two days after deciding that she’d like to serve under Boris Johnson she changed her mind and announced that this was no longer something a reasonable person could do.

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She was replaced by James Cleverly who took a different view about what was reasonable only to get shuffled out two months later when Liz Truss decided she needed her own loyalists around her and replaced him with Kit Malthouse. He lasted until October 25 when Gillian Keegan took over.

Kit Malthouse lasted until October 25 when Gillian Keegan took over. PIC: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty ImagesKit Malthouse lasted until October 25 when Gillian Keegan took over. PIC: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Kit Malthouse lasted until October 25 when Gillian Keegan took over. PIC: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Confused? You have every right to be.

How is any government department supposed to function properly when the leader changes with this bewildering speed? It takes months to properly understand something as complex as the education system and even longer to plan constructive change and see it through to completion.

If the new incumbent does manage to get a grip on her brief, then she might like to consider some of the fundamental challenges that need to be addressed. Staff morale is high on that list. Inflation at 10 per cent and real term wages going down for over a decade doesn’t make for a happy staff room.

Yet for many teachers their declining pay isn’t actually the worst aspect of the job. Remarkable numbers of them complain about not being able to put their energies into teaching because they are wasting huge quantities of time on filling out paperwork about how they are going to teach, what was learned and whatever is needed for the latest educational statistics. There is a real thirst amongst teachers for simplification and to be trusted to get on with making lessons interesting instead of focusing on how to get the school through its next Ofsted inspection.

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Then there is the huge issue of educational inequality. There is a huge gulf between the experience of students who go to successful schools in affluent suburbs and those who are educated in the inner cities where the chances of success are much lower. The strategy of relabelling a “failed” school as an academy and relaunching it under the control of some remote chain of schools has itself “failed”. There is a real need for better targeted support for those who are working on the front line in the most challenging schools.

Once she has thought through a more successful policy on that she might wish to turn her mind to the issue of investment. It isn’t easy to teach the next generation the skills they need for the future on equipment that is out of date in buildings with leaky roofs. In the vast majority of schools kids learn the scientific facts about climate change underneath roofs that lack solar panels as they are warmed by radiators heated by inefficient gas boilers.

That need for investment is most in evidence in further education. We’ve all heard a lot in recent years about how Britain needs a skilled workforce in order to be ready to compete in a global knowledge economy. If we want to achieve that then there is no better way to start than by restoring the pride in our system of training apprentices, technicians and skilled workers.

Colleges should be places where the brightest of our young students are trained on the latest equipment by people who have recently come out of industry with real knowledge of the latest techniques. All too often those colleges simply can’t afford to provide a sufficiently up to date experience.

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Universities and schools have a strong lobby fighting on their behalf. The further education colleges which are vital to our future don’t and as a consequence they have been badly neglected for decades. Much of what little new funding there is has been wasted on silly vanity projects like T levels whilst useful qualifications like BTECs and City and Guilds have been undervalued.

My final wish is that the new Secretary of State will give more thought to what our children eat. There is an epidemic of obesity amongst children at the same time as there are real problems of children arriving at schools weak from hunger.

Andy Brown was the director of Hillsborough College and director of Young People's Learning for Yorkshire and the Humber. He is a Craven District councillor for the Green Party.