Appointing Sir Kevan Collins as Covid catch-up tsar is potentially one of the most astute decisions on education the government has taken during this pandemic.
OK, some may argue that the bar was set low. But that shouldn’t take away from the wisdom of ministers’ choice for their new education recovery commissioner.
It isn’t just that Sir Kevan Collins is steeped in "what works", having led the Education Endowment Foundation, which spearheaded the drive to make teaching more evidence-based.
Sir Kevan Collins: Who is the new Covid catch-up tsar?
Cost of Covid: Teachers' grim figures on learning loss
He also has a track record of taking people with him through successful change: he led children’s services and then an entire London borough at Tower Hamlets, as it became one of the country’s most improved education authorities.
And the new education recovery commissioner has already proved himself a canny operator, having succeeded and thrived under both Labour and Tory administrations.
Coronavirus catch-up: Collins' diplomacy to face its sternest test
Sir Kevan is well-liked and respected by influential people across the political spectrum. It’s not so much that he has been an overt politician. But perhaps a focus on changing education for the better, for the most disadvantaged, has inspired his success in stopping party politics from getting in the way, and in staying onside with everyone.
But Sir Kevan’s diplomatic skills will face their sternest test yet in his new role. His first interview as commissioner was a carefully couched exercise in making his message palatable to teachers as well as government, as my editor Jon Severs has already commented.
... is interesting that on Day One, Sir Kevan has come out and spoken about those things that you cannot measure directly (but can indirectly) on tests.— Jon Severs (@jon_severs) February 8, 2021
"More time on learning" will get the headlines, but we don't know how that is going to look - it may end up being quite...
But the catch-up commissioner’s comments also showed how ruffling feathers may be inevitable if he is to do what he thinks is necessary to repair the damage done to pupils’ education during the pandemic.
Asking teachers to 'increase learning time'
Sir Kevan’s admission that “we're going to have to ask teachers to increase learning time for children” has led the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, Geoff Barton, to warn of the importance of a “focus on quality of education rather than crowd-pleasing arguments about quantity”.
That reaction is a clear demonstration of the eggshells that Sir Kevan will be walking on as he works out the recovery plan. And he will be hoping it is not a taster for bigger rows to come.
And this early skirmish is more proof, as if any were needed, that the cliche is true – there will be no easy solutions for Covid learning loss.
But sources suggest Downing Street is “very bold” about how big its education recovery plan will be. So, could Boris Johnson’s previous “huge” rhetoric over education Covid catch-up be about to be matched by reality?
Teachers' goodwill is essential for Covid catch-up
If so, it is going to require two things – more cold hard cash from the Treasury and some very deft diplomacy to keep teachers onside. It doesn’t matter who else you manage to draft in to try and make policies like longer school days possible – they are going to have to have teachers’ goodwill to make them work.
The profession obviously wants to help its pupils get over the impact of the pandemic – of course, it does: doing the best for young people is what drives teachers.
But teachers are also feeling picked on, strung-out, scared, drained and exhausted. So, any policy that asks them to do even more after an incredibly tough year will have to be very carefully thought through and explained, so that they are fully behind it.
Potential obstacles are already emerging. Some critics are already fearful that the whole idea of increasing learning time could actually make things worse for under-pressure pupils.
Why is he talking about increasing time at school then? I'm sure he's a nice bloke but it's the last thing young people need to be hearing.— Sue Cowley 🇪🇺 (@Sue_Cowley) February 8, 2021
If Sir Kevan doesn’t succeed with his Covid catch-up plans, it won’t be for lack of reach. Sources describe his position as "practically running education".
And those dishing out that power will hope their new commissioner comes to be seen as being more effective than the popular image of the man officially running education. But if that is to happen, Sir Kevan will have to have teachers’ backing.