Angela Rayner was badly underestimated when she was parachuted into the job of shadow education secretary in 2016 in the midst of Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest crisis.
In the two years since, she’s proved, time and again, to be both rather good at politics (in extremely unusual circumstances) and pleasingly pragmatic when it comes to policy.
Today’s conference speech is a case in point. The set of policies she revealed in Liverpool walks a tricky political tightrope.
There’s just about enough red meat for the Corbynite tendency (reining in fat cat Mat salaries, for example, and banning forced academisation) but there’s also a lot of very sensible policy in there. This is the kind of stuff that most educationists would welcome (eg returning admissions to the control of local authorities).
As is often the case with politicians, it’s what Rayner didn’t say that’s possibly more important. And, despite rumours apparently doing the rounds in Liverpool, what she didn’t say was that all academies would be returned to local authority control. She talked around it (“we will bring... all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control”), but didn’t say it out-right.
Indeed perhaps the most eye-catching aspect of her speech was the wholesale support for the formation of more new co-op school trusts. While these schools are not technically academies, they are most certainly not maintained schools controlled by the local council.
Two or three aspects of Rayner’s speech will worry advocates of academies – ending forced academisation for failing schools, killing off what’s left of the free school programme, and allowing local authorities to open their own schools – but in large part they will be relieved. Possibly more than relieved: the academies programme would live to fight another day under a Labour government.
One veteran of right-leaning education policy went even further: “Rayner is successfully navigating some high level politics - bluntly, she's talking left and acting right. Her centre piece of academy reform [the support for co-op schools], is one that after all, the Labour Party only forced through parliament in 2005 - against the opposition of much of their party - because of the enthusiastic support of David Cameron and Michael Gove.”
Ed Dorrell is head of content at TES