By now, you’ll have realised that the most annoying aspect of becoming a secretary of state is the deluge of unsolicited, condescending, open letters from people you’ve never heard of. My first piece of advice, though, is to listen to them, and to the sector more generally. Some of your erstwhile colleagues advocate a Maoist approach to policymaking: permanent revolution and the ruthless crushing of dissent. Their counsel should be ignored. Fear can be very effective in achieving compliance but only persuasion and partnership will get your meaningful reform.
Secondly, you must prioritise. The average tenure of an education secretary is around two years. That’s enough time to make a difference, but only if you focus on two or three things. Moreover, you’re not starting with a blank sheet of paper. You’re like a pilot walking into the cockpit in mid-flight; pushing every button is unlikely to help, but the right combination will get you safely to the ground.
So, what should your priorities be? Well, the first must be improving teacher recruitment and retention. You will already have seen the numbers – five consecutive years of missed targets and a scary 30 per cent drop in applications this year. Nothing else you want to achieve will be possible if we don’t have enough good teachers.
There are some immediate, tactical, things you can do, such as helping schools and academy trusts coordinate their School Direct marketing more effectively. Ultimately, though, the only way to solve the problem is to make the profession more attractive. A lot of people will tell you it’s not about money – and it’s true that cash is rarely the primary motivator for teachers – but it’s also true that teachers are not immune to financial incentives. The almost decade-long pay freeze is undoubtedly having an effect, and there’s plenty of evidence from the US showing targeted increases in pay for shortage subjects can be affordable and make a real difference.
But money, even if it can be found, will only go so far. We know that most teachers leaving the profession are either going to teaching jobs in the private sector or into lower-paid public sector roles. The job has simply become too exhausting for a lot of people, and the increase in turnover is putting ever more pressure on recruitment. This is particularly true for newly qualified teachers, who far too rarely get the support they need. You should continue the reforms to early career support begun by your predecessor and make sure they come with an adequate package of funding that enables schools to properly mentor new teachers.
You should also tackle the two main causes of increased workload for teachers over the past decade: pastoral care and assessment. The former has been driven by severe funding cuts to local authority services, like parenting support, and the under-resourcing of children’s mental health provision. Teachers, especially in the most disadvantaged schools, are left picking up the pieces. Money is scarce, but in your spending review bid you need to worry about these services as well as schools’ budgets.
On assessment, there’s an easy and cheap solution that you can announce in your first speech: make it very clear that you won’t touch the curriculum or statutory testing regime for at least the next three years. There has been a flood of change and simply giving it time to bed in will reduce workload as teachers get use to new specifications. A harder conundrum is balancing the need to hold schools accountable for performance with the pressure created by overly harsh sanctions. Shifting towards a world where one poor Ofsted or set of results leads to support rather than punishment would go a long way to making teachers’ jobs more manageable but this must be done without allowing perpetual underperformance. It’s the hardest bit of the policy jigsaw to get right.
Alongside ensuring we have enough teachers, your other priority should be to identify the ideal end state for the system reforms started by Michael Gove in 2010. Since Nicky Morgan’s 2016 White Paper was unceremoniously binned post-referendum, there has been no real sense of where we’re heading. Do we want all schools to be academies (if not, what are the costs of running a duel system with an ever-decreasing rump of local authority controlled schools?) Do we want them all to be in trusts?
Perhaps most importantly, what’s the right regulatory system for a world in which, over time, most schools are academies? I appreciate this sounds dull and regulatory reform rarely leads the 6 o’clock news – but without it you have no real lever for school improvement. The Regional Schools Commissioner offices have grown rapidly under your predecessors without clear definition as to their purpose. There is a risk that they will become a shadow inspectorate – creating even more pressure for schools – which was not their original intention.
Meanwhile, local authorities have lost their empire but not yet found a role. At the same time, a minority of academy trusts are using their autonomy to fiddle their intake and to illegally exclude struggling pupils. The solution seems obvious – as LAs move away from responsibility over governance, they should be given strong powers over admissions, exclusions and special educational needs so they can act as the champion of young people in their area.
A system of diverse school providers working together to push up standards but closely regulated to drive out malfeasance is entirely possible, but it will require a concerted effort on your part to draw the different strands together. And if you want parents to have some real choice between providers, then for God’s sake resist the siren voices demanding more grammar schools. They are anti-competitive, pure and simple. They choose their customers to the detriment of the rest of the system and all the evidence shows this has a negative impact on the poorest pupils most of all.
One final piece of advice. You’ve written extensively in the past about your desire for greater social mobility in England. As a director of a charity committed to educational equality, I’m certainly not going to object to that. But remember that social mobility goes beyond the individual. Helping a few more young people “escape” their backgrounds will only increase social divides. We need to improve the opportunities for everyone in those parts of the country that have seen a lack of investment and interest over the past decades.
If you’ve read this far, then thank you for listening. You’ve got one of the best jobs in politics and the chance to make a difference to the lives of millions of children. Good luck!
Sam Freedman is executive director of Teach First, and a former policy adviser to former education secretary Michael Gove