'Plans to expand the 11-plus may be shelved but Greening faces her trickiest test yet'

12th June 2017 at 16:33
Being spared the task of introducing new grammar schools could end up being a mixed blessing for Justine Greening

So after enduring months of rumours that she was to be replaced as education secretary, Justine Greening lives to fight another day.

A prime minister barely clinging on to power has decided, sensibly, to leave things be at Sanctuary Buildings.

Better still for Greening, Nicky Timothy, the Number 10 adviser who wielded such power over education, has gone. So, seemingly, has any realistic prospect of the expansion of grammar schools that he was so intent on delivering.

The policy’s biggest advocates are still holding out hope for some kind of pilot. But the Parliamentary arithmetic for ending the legal ban on new grammars just does not add up.

All of that must be great news for the education secretary. It cannot be easy trying to do the job when so many of the important shots on education are being called by a behind-the-scenes figures in Downing Street

Just ask Estelle Morris how she felt about having to deal with the unelected "Andrew Adonises of this world".

And it is widely believed that Greening, a former comprehensive pupil, was lukewarm at the very best about having to introduce more grammar schools.

A free hand?

As she takes up the reins again, is everything set fair for an education secretary who will finally have a free hand to introduce the policies she really believes in?

Maybe in theory. But in practice, Greening has been dealt an incredibly difficult hand post-election.

Even if she was personally against the idea of more grammar schools, introducing the policy would have had some significant political advantages for the education secretary.

Firstly, expanding academic selection would have ensured that a large section of the most vociferous right-wing press and commentariat were on board as happy, contented cheer leaders.

Secondly, it would have taken up a huge amount of bandwidth in terms of media, policy and public opinion – and provided a welcome distraction to many of the other problems fermenting away at the Department for Education.

Because once you get beyond new grammars, much of what lies in Greening's in-tray is not pretty at all.

Looming chaos

The teacher recruitment crisis is real and effecting schools now. The Department for Education belatedly appears to have woken up to there being a problem, but the bad news keeps coming.

Then there is the looming chaos with GCSE grades likely to engulf education this summer.

Have Ofqual and the DfE really done enough to ensure that parents and employers not only understand the new grades, but can also cope with two separate systems running at the same time?

Meanwhile, bubbling away will be the continuing sporadic embarrassments caused by the DfE assuming direct control over thousands of academies without the capacity to properly supervise them.

As Tes discussed in Friday’s magazine, the flight of regional schools commissioners from what is supposed to be one of the key roles in education looks increasingly like a sign of a system in trouble.

Angry parents

Worst of all is school funding – or, rather, the lack of it. The issue has already made the leap from education into the general public consciousness, helping to deny the Conservatives a majority in the process.

The Tories will have to go way beyond the minimal extra funding in their manifesto to make the schools’ budget problems go away. And while angry parents have the bit between their teeth, they will continue to damage ministers and make the news.

All of this might be possible for a skilled secretary of state to ride out if they had some big ideas – some radical, eye-catching scheme to generate some forward momentum and persuade at least some of the population that they really were making a difference.

Michael Gove’s Swedish-style free schools idea may have been hugely controversial, but it managed to catch the imagination of many influential people and make him a star within his own party.

But the chances of a minority Conservative government finding the time, energy or capital to try anything remotely risky or radical in schools must now be next to nothing.

That lack of new ideas may end up being good for teachers. But it leaves Justine Greening with little to do but clear up everyone else’s messes, with little money available to help her succeed. 

William Stewart is news editor of the TES and tweets at @wstewarttes

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