'If this signals anything, it's that No 10 is determined to take back control of education policy'

As it attempts to reassert its authority, Theresa May's Downing Street will be in need of 'fresh' ideas...

News article image

So she’s gone. After a leviathan power struggle inside No 10 this evening, Justine Greening’s short reign as education secretary is over.

And whatever else happens now, her widely predicted departure appears to mean one crucial thing for the nation’s schools – Number 10 wants to be back in charge of education.

We know this because prime minister Theresa May is reported to want improved schools standards to be a major theme of a new year Conservatives’ relaunch. And with a new education secretary only just getting their feet under the table at Sanctuary Buildings, it seems likely that the imperative for whatever change is being planned will not come from within the DfE but from Downing Street itself. Education ministers will just have to work out the details.

Of course, this is hardly new territory. Recent education history is littered with instances where the PM and their advisers have sought to take over the rudder of our schools system.

At the turn of the century, it was Andrew Adonis who was acting as Downing Street’s in-house alternative education secretary and last year it was Nick Timothy. From Blair’s trust schools to the recent aborted attempts at forced 100 per cent academisation and the opening of new grammar schools, the results are often ineffective.

Whether you regard Downing Street meddling in our schools system as a good thing largely depends on whether you want the actual education secretary of the day to be left unencumbered to introduce the policies they believe in.

Michael Gove had one of the freest hands as David Cameron allowed him to proceed at high speed with policies like free schools that had played well in the right-wing media long before his government was elected.

Some will undoubtedly wish a few more obstacles were thrown in Mr Gove’s way. But others grow increasingly wistful about what they see as a golden era of school reform.

Stay of execution

Justine Greening was forced to operate at the other end of the spectrum. Almost as soon as she started, it was clear that Downing Street was hellbent on opening more grammar schools – a policy that not only went against the thinking of almost everyone in education but also the views of Greening herself.

May’s general election disaster had appeared to have saved Ms Greening, allowing to her ride out pre-vote sacking rumours and stay on at the DfE to proceed with a more consensual approach.

However, it only turned out to be a stay of execution. The PM’s view of Greening as “patronising” is reported to have been one reason for her downfall; as has her reported claims that she has been “less than supportive” of her leader.

But policy could also have been an issue. Some have interpreted criticism from Mr Timothy – May’s former key adviser and architect of the grammar schools plan – in December as a sign that Greening’s time was up.

Whatever the case, it leaves her successor facing a baptism of fire. Anything cooked up for a school standards relaunch will either have to be a product of the Number 10 ideas factory or something that the new secretary of state will have to be put together in a matter of weeks.

Either way, it is likely to be a difficult sell to the education world. It will also have to be radical sounding enough to make headlines – almost always the key requirement when Downing Street is involved – need little or no extra money and not require any legislation that would have to proceed through a delicately hung Parliament.

Above all, it will have to keep the prime minister happy. The new education secretary’s first task will not be an easy one. 

William Stewart is Tes news editor and tweets @wstewarttes

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow Tes on Twitter and Instagram, and like Tes on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you