Justine Greening was far from the perfect education secretary. Her voting record – supporting academisation, increasing tuition fees and ending financial support for college students – revealed the type of education system she and the government were trying to build: privatised and elitist. Yet Greening’s no-nonsense approach and apparent willingness to listen had started to rebuild fragile trust among the teachers Michael Gove left so decimated by his stint in post.
Greening’s resignation from the Cabinet this week has left that trust hanging in the balance.
As Damian Hinds becomes the third education secretary in two years, teachers across the country, like myself, have been left facing more broken continuity. Already struggling to properly prepare the next generation for life in the face of dwindling budgets, schools and teachers are again vulnerable to the ideological whims of a politician. But we must not forget that this change is also an opportunity. The government claims to care about our children and young people – and now Hinds holds that claim in his hands. What he does next will determine whether a government in chaos is able to retain the shred of credibility Greening had built among teachers. If Hinds is serious about cementing it, there are some critical tests he needs to pass.
Get rid of Sats
First is proving that the government cares about pupils and teachers more than league tables, by abolishing high-stakes Sats in our primary schools. If our classrooms are to become places which transform lives, they must place exploration and a love of learning right at the centre. Endless, pointless and pressurised tests burden our teachers and children alike. It is time we trusted teachers to teach, and stopped telling our children they are only worth the mark they get in an exam.
It is a real concern, but perhaps not unsurprising, that Hinds shares with his predecessor a clear support of academisation. Like Greening, Hinds voted for the effective privatisation of our schools through the form of academy chains at every opportunity. This misguided programme has taken schools out of the control of local authorities and parents, and given them to private institutions – leaving the survival of vulnerable schools dependent on commercial decisions made miles from the local communities they serve. The second test of Hinds' credibility as education secretary will be to bring these academy schools back into local authority control.
For many years, children in Britain have been subject to a two-tier education system. Hinds' third test as education secretary will be to ensure every child gets the best possible schooling, and that means taking inclusive education seriously. Those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have for too long been segregated into special schools or given inadequate support in mainstream education. In August last year, a damning UN report said that progress towards inclusive education had “stalled”, with disabled children increasingly segregated and the number of SEND children in state-run special schools increasing. Inclusive education enriches the experiences of all children, and the government’s failure to recognise this is frankly shameful.
Last, but certainly not least, Hinds must show teachers that he values our hard work. I have seen first-hand the number of brilliant teachers leaving the profession due to stress and burnout. If Britain is to stand any chance of recruiting and retaining good teachers, it must address the crippling workload stopping us from doing what we do best – teach.
Vix Lowthion is the Green Party's education spokeswoman and teacher