'Education ministers need strong, informed opposition – and they're not getting that at the moment'

The current situation in which one political party is steamrollering Parliament unchallenged, with impotent protest outside, represents a constitutional crisis, says a former Labour schools minister

Jim Knight

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This week saw the appointment of a new ministerial team in a new reunified Department for Education. At the same time, the shadow ministerial team continues to be little more than a one-woman band at a time when we desperately need proper parliamentary scrutiny.

I wish the new secretary of state well. She demonstrated a good commitment to girls’ education in her time at the Department for International Development, which gives me encouragement.

Her ministerial team is a familiar line-up. Jo Johnson, Nick Gibb and Lord Nash all carry on, and Robert Halfon is a good appointment as skills minister. We also know that education and skills are a big Number 10 priority, as they tackle the new anti-social exclusion agenda that Theresa May highlighted when appointed.

Justine Greening, as education secretary, faces a number of challenges. These would be my top five:

  1. Ensuring our schools system has enough human talent, so that well-led schools can be fully staffed with good teachers;
  2. Dealing with the school places crisis caused by the increased birth rate;
  3. Streamlining a whole education system that better prepares young people for a fulfilling adult life at a time of unprecedented change caused by globalisation, technological change and longevity;
  4. Developing a viable universal adult skills system that enables all of us to keep "reskilling" as we are continually "deskilled" by technology, and that compensates for a likely loss of migrant skills post-Brexit;
  5. Resolving the massive financial consequences of Brexit for the university sector.

'Governments must have proper scrutiny'

All governments benefit from challenge and scrutiny. This massive agenda needs more than the solo might of Angela Rayner MP, who currently covers the whole of schools and children’s policy on her own for Labour in the Commons. Her only support is shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden. Angela versus the combined might of Greening, Gibb and Edward Timpson, supported by the civil service, is not a recipe for strong opposition.

This all demonstrates why we need the mess that is the current Labour Party to be resolved. The leader of the opposition is well-resourced by the taxpayer with a good salary and a team of advisers. But if the incumbent can’t keep the confidence of his MPs then he can’t appoint a full slate of shadow ministers and, ultimately, can’t do the job he is paid for.

This situation, in itself, is a constitutional crisis. Parliamentarians on every side, business and charity leaders, friends overseas, they all get it and are appalled. Our system of parliamentary democracy needs strong informed debate. A party of government steamrollering Parliament unchallenged, with impotent protest outside, is a national disgrace.

The country will have to manage without an effective opposition until at least 24 September, when the Labour leadership election is concluded.

I hope the outcome is a clear result that allows MPs to do their job. I fear not. But fingers crossed.

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES’ parent company, TES Global, and a former Labour schools minister. He tweets as @jimpknight

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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