Damian Hinds is glad to be out of Brexit-obsessed Westminster.
The education secretary was due to meet Tes on Tuesday afternoon to discuss his long-awaited edtech strategy, ahead of its launch on Wednesday.
However, a contentious seven-hour cabinet meeting about the UK’s future place in the world intervened, and the interview had to be re-scheduled.
Education secretary: Who is Damian Hinds?
Instead, Tes talked to Hinds a day later in a small, plain room above a vast auditorium in the EdExcel centre in east London, where he had just spoken at the Schools and Academies Show.
“It’s quite a wake-up call to see all this great technology when you have just had seven hours of enforced digital detox at Downing Street yesterday,” he told his audience to laughter.
Despite the Brexit-induced paralysis across much of government, Hinds says the work of the DfE has not been among its victims.
“In truth, Brexit has not actually had much effect at all on what we are actually doing in the DfE. The frustration – and to be fair I’m not going to level this accusation at Tes – is it’s much more difficult to get anybody to know the things that we are doing at the DfE.
“I did one media round a couple of weeks ago – eight interviews in a row – and in five of them I didn’t get asked a single question about education, let alone specifically on the thing we were announcing.”
Yes, some of his civil servants has been reassigned to other departments to work on no deal Brexit planning – “working collaboratively with other departments on a temporary basis” is how he puts it – but Hinds says the impact on the DfE’s work will only be felt if these secondments continue.
The edtech strategy is an example of the work the DfE has managed to do, despite Brexit.
In contrast to his recent predecessors at the department, Hinds is a genuine technology enthusiast.
Truth be told, the strategy is more a pull together of a number of initiatives the DfE has already publicised rather than a bold new vision. But its mere existence is a signal of its importance to the secretary of state.
He knows that edtech has had a bad rap in the past, and in his speech he acknowledged that schools can “end up with a cupboard of shame, full of all the technology kit that seemed like a great idea at the time, but which in reality ends up being hardly used”.
His vision now is to close the gap between edtech developers and the schools and teachers who use their products, so that the former can provide the latter with technology that is of practical use.
The strategy sets 10 challenges for edtech developers to address, including helping schools accommodate teachers who want to work part time, reducing the time teachers spend marking mock GCSE essays, and cutting the time teachers spend preparing and marking assessments and homework.
But although there is £10 million to help spur the innovation, Hinds acknowledges that the strategy does not include any new money for schools to actually buy this technology, despite the current funding crisis.
Instead, he talks about the millions of pounds they already spend on tech, and how he wants to help schools spent it as wisely as possible, giving as an example products that have been peer-reviewed through the new LendED initiative, so they can have confidence they will work for them.
Hinds says funding is the question that heads most often raise with him when he visits schools.
In recent weeks, he talked more openly than before about the case he will be putting for school funding in the upcoming government spending review.
As he puts it to Tes: “I think because so much else in our society and economy depends on education I think it’s a particularly important case to put."
So do schools have reason to believe that they will receive the extra funding they are crying out for? Does the fact that so many of Hinds’ fellow Tory MPs raise the issue with him in Parliament make it more likely that the Treasury will cough up?
Hinds avoids a direct answer, instead repeating his formulation that he will be putting the case. But school funding is clearly a sore point.
Last month, headteachers wrote to parents in an estimated 3.5 million households saying Hinds refused to meet the WorthLess campaign of school leaders lobbying for increased funding.
“Can I just stop you there”, Hinds interrupts when Tes mentions this in passing. “Do you believe that I haven’t met headteachers?”
He says he has “met people from the WorthLess campaign group, as indeed have other ministers”.
Tes asks whether he met them in their capacity as WorthLess campaigners.
“I have met at least one person from the WorthLess campaign group at a specific event to talk about school funding, and others at their schools. But the head of the WorthLess campaign has also met other ministers,” Hinds responds.
Another beef from some headteachers has been a perceived lack of DfE support for those in Birmingham primary schools who have faced vocal demonstrations against LGBT content in lessons.
On Sunday, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman came out strongly against the protests. And Hinds uses this interview to follow up with his most forthright comments yet.
“I don’t want to see demonstrations at school gates,” he says.
“Specifically, to the extent there are cases, as there have been [at Parkfield Community School], of teachers feeling intimidated by that, that is absolutely not what we should be seeing in our schools.
“I want dialogue. That’s the way to progress these things.”
There are other issues: Hinds sounds unenthusiastic about the Home Office’s plans to place a new legal duty on schools to take action to help prevent knife crime.
In a later conference huddle with education journalists, he reiterates how he trusts teachers to make decisions about mobile phones in schools.
And then the secretary of state’s brief foray into the outside world is over, and he is whisked back to Westminster for what will prove to be the second longest Prime Ministers’ Questions on record.
The main topic? Brexit, of course.