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Exclusive: Damian Hinds' priorities...on two sides of A4

A document setting out the DfE's priorities is a mixture of the expected, the pedantic and the downright vague, writes Martin George

Damian Hinds

A document setting out the DfE's priorities is a mixture of the expected, the pedantic and the downright vague, writes Martin George

It’s taken a while. But finally, seven months after becoming education secretary, Damian Hinds’ DfE has boiled down its priorities to two sides of A4.

So has it been worth the wait? Tes is able to reveal that the results, handed out by Mr Hinds’ advisers to external policy groups last month, are something of a mixed bag.

They include the expected, the pedantic, a political comeback, the contradictory, and the downright vague.

The document outlining Damian Hinds' priorities.

The document outlining Damian Hinds' priorities.

To begin with the latter, the document reveals that we are “striving for world-class education, training, care…”.

So when it comes to “academic standards”, what does this mean? Which countries should we be trying to match? Perhaps Singapore, much lauded by the traditionalists, or the progressives' icon, Finland?

Or maybe we should come up with some criteria to use when choosing our benchmarks - perhaps the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings?

But no, the document simply says our academic standards should “match key nations”. Who they are, much less how they are identified, is left entirely unexplained.

There is much more in the document.

Consider one of the golden threads that has run through much of the DfE’s rhetoric since 2010 – setting schools free from the “local authority control”.

Here we enter the world of paradox and contradiction, for the DfE document stresses the need for “autonomy within clear boundaries”.

What can this mean?

When is autonomy not autonomy? Will our schools be forced to be free, or free to be forced? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

A suitable riddle for a Zen meditation perhaps, but it may be slightly lacking as a practical guide for civil servants.

The document then lurches disconcertingly from the possibly profound to the pedantically practical.

“Make every £1 count,” it instructs officials.

And in case any bureaucrat thinks this is simply a careless case of overly-literal drafting, the phrase confronts them again on the second side of A4, where they are told to ask themselves “is this the very best use of every £1?”

The document also confirms the return to centre stage of a policy area that was a pet concern of Nicky Morgan, before being pushed to the sidelines by Justine Greening.

Yes, “character, resilience and well-being” is back.

Together with “academic standards to match key nations”, and “technical education to rival Germany’s”, it completes a trio of bullet points that explain “what it means”.

And the issue of character also appears third among the list of seven questions that DfE civil servants are told to ask themselves when considering what their teams do and don’t do: “Will this develop character and wellbeing?”

The document also sets out some common themes that will come as no surprise to even the most casual of DfE watchers: recruiting, developing or retaining the best people; prioritising the most disadvantaged; raising standards.

We learn that ministers “will focus much of their time across a list of tier 1 priority programs”:

  • Teacher recruitment and retention and workload
  • Growing quality apprenticeships
  • Deliver T levels
  • Outcomes for disadvantaged children and young people (including SEND, CiN and LAC)
  • Post-18 choice and value
  • School resource and management

But fear not if you think these six bullet points are not enough. There are, we are promised, a further “18 1b priorities”, although the document does not elaborate further.

Perhaps we must wait for another two sides of A4 to find out what else the DfE thinks is important.

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