So, farewell Damian Hinds.
His spell as education secretary may not have been the shortest – having clocked in just over 18 months, he beat both Justine Greening and Estelle Morris. But in many ways, it was one of the most forgettable.
There was no big idea, no great radical reform agenda, no sweeping change, not even a high-profile campaign to drive up standards.
Quick read: Accountability shake-up means end of forced academisation for poor results
Clearing up other people’s messes – teacher shortages, the institutional overlap between Ofsted and school commissioners – was Mr Hinds’ main focus and he managed it with varying degrees of success.
He was affable and conciliatory rather than controversial. He committed no major gaffes. So there will be little – good or bad – to catch the eye of future historians when they examine the Hinds record at Sanctuary Buildings.
Schools under less pressure
But if they simply move on without comment they will be making a big mistake. Mr Hinds did do something hugely important to schools policy in England. The fact that it has received little public attention is of no great surprise. Because this was not about the introduction of some bold new initiative, but the removal of some very technical sounding aspects of the school accountability regime.
However, the language used in Mr Hinds’ largely unreported decision to take apart the Department for Education school accountability regime should not obscure its significance. By scrapping floor and coasting targets, regional schools commissioner school inspections and forced academisation triggered by performance data, he has reversed three decades of central government policy that has steadily ratcheted up the pressure on schools to get better exam and test results.
Today, Ofsted is in sole charge of school accountability and the inspectorate is about to switch to a regime that will place less emphasis on results and more on the curriculum. It could be argued that schools are now under less pressure to do better in tests and exams than they have been at any time this century.
And guess what? The sky hasn’t fallen in. Schools do their best and their results will continue to be largely dependent on their pupil intake – just as they always have been. In fact, it’s doubtful whether anyone apart from school leaders and education policy nerds have even noticed the DfE’s change in approach. There have been no thundering newspaper editorials condemning ministers for going soft, no revolt from parents angered at the lack of pressure on schools coming down from the DfE.
How long can it last?
Instead, as ministers vacated the space, school standards have virtually ceased to be part of mainstream political discourse. Now, much of the action on the great debates in school education takes place at teacher-to-teacher level on Twitter. And, yes, that has led to some unhelpful polarisation of views. But surely it’s better to have the profession thrashing out what should go on in schools rather than a minister parachuted in from the backbenches or another department.
But how long can this last? To some extent, the current situation has been created by external factors that will eventually change. Mr Hinds was unable to bring in any big new reforms because the government had to focus on Brexit, had no spare money, and lacked the numbers needed to get anything remotely contentious through Parliament.
His hand was also forced by education considerations. Mr Hinds was the secretary of state who had to face up to the reality of the impact that central government’s drive for school improvement had been having on the ground.
He decided he had an “urgent task” – “to look at the barriers that can drive teachers, and leaders, out of the profession and may put people off in the first place”. “Top of the list” in the factors he identified was teacher workload and that, in turn, had been driven by the school accountability system.
Reason to rejoice
So while the new education secretary will be keen to make their mark, they would also be wise to consider the wider implications of any great intervention they are considering.
Finding enough quality teachers is only one half of the crisis currently facing schools. They also desperately need more funding. And without any new cash, another big idea from the DfE to shake things up is likely to go down very badly indeed.
So with Brexit continuing to dominate and no change in the parliamentary arithmetic the secretary of state will have very little room for manoeuvre. That may be personally frustrating, but if Mr Hinds’ ceasefire on school standards does turn out to be more than a historical blip then teachers across England will have reason to rejoice.