Could the next education secretary be Nick Gibb?

3rd January 2018 at 18:03
Please don't panic. In truth, the minister of state for school standards could prove to be the stability candidate

As speculation continues about whether Justine Greening will be kept on as education secretary in a forthcoming cabinet reshuffle, gossip is rife about who might replace her.

One persistent rumour is that comeback king Nick Gibb, currently minister of state for school standards, might be elevated by Theresa May to the largest office in Sanctuary Buildings.

On first visitation, this idea does seem slightly unlikely: this was the politician who as schools minister was fired by the coalition government before making an improbable comeback to more or less the same job less than two years later.

It is also the kind of idea that would send teachers who identify with the progressive wing of education’s false-dichotomy emigrating to the four winds. He is, after all, the unofficial godfather of the neo-trad movement.

Upping the ante

But bear me out, firstly, on why this idea isn’t as unlikely as it first seems – and secondly on why the king of harder Sats, phonic checks and times tables tests might not be such a bad idea for schools.

Firstly, it has been well-briefed that there are those in the Conservative Party's ranks who think that Ms Greening needs replacing because she has apparently gone soft on the education's “blob”: the collective Govian noun for teacher training establishments, the unions and the teaching profession in general. She is, it would seem, failing to uphold the Govian legacy.

Mr Gibb would be a willing volunteer when it came to upping the ante when it comes to – verbally, at least – taking on Mr Gove's "enemies of promise". He has demonstrated little of Ms Greening’s enthusiasm for the college of teaching and still refuses to recognise that there is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. He has few friends in the teacher unions and Govian rhetoric would not be a problem for him here.

In addition, it is believed that No 10 is keen to promote a political line about improvements in school standards – and there’s even talk of a major prime-ministerial speech on the subject. This is totally Mr Gibb’s schtick – look at his job title – and even more so since last month when he has basked in the glory of his phonics check being credited with pushing UK schools up the Pirls international literacy rankings.

Stability candidate

Supporters of Mr Gibb’s elevation – and there are many more within the Conservative Party than there would have been a year or two ago – say he could be the stability candidate with extra oomph.

But for all the political oomph in the world, the appointment of Mr Gibb would be unlikely to be headline-grabbing or politically sexy on a national stage.

So Mr Gibb’s destiny lies in the scale and style of Ms May’s ambition for this reshuffle. If she is plotting the wholesale relaunch of her administration, there’s every chance we’ll be looking at a new, young gun parachuted into the Department for Education. Likely a red-meat Brexiteer – in contrast to Ms Greening’s consensual Remainer style – you’d expect political battles to be manufactured where there are none and a whole raft of new policies promoted where few are needed.

Nick Gibb's main mission

Contrast this with what you would expect from Mr Gibb. The veteran education minister knows his patch from top to bottom and believes totally and utterly in the righteousness of the curriculum and exam reforms that he and Mr Gove have rammed home since they came to power in 2010. He makes no secret that his main mission is to ensure that these are allowed to bed in and become hard to unravel.

Schools might not have universally loved these reforms when they were proposed (UNDERSTATEMENT KLAXON), but most would much rather deal with what they’ve now got – at least for a period – than start over again.

If Ms May were to promote Mr Gibb there would, of course, be harder language about demanding higher standards. He’d likely attack the classroom unions in a speech or two and he would certainly ensure that the times-tables tests become an established part of life in primary schools. But in practice, he would more than likely represent stability – albeit with a little extra combative language.

Better the devil you know.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell

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