Why Gibb's exit may spell big changes for school policy

The removal of schools minister Nick Gibb suggests education reforms could lie ahead, writes James Bowen

James Bowen

Reshuffle: Schools minister Nick Gibb's exit could have the bigger impact on future education policy

As far as reshuffles at the Department for Education go, this one ended up being pretty dramatic.

Less so because of the departure of the secretary of state, Gavin Williamson. Frankly, this had been predicted for months and no one would have been surprised when the news broke yesterday afternoon that he was being replaced.

No, the more significant news emerged later in the evening when school standards minister Nick Gibb announced that he, too, would be leaving the department

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While secretaries of state have come and gone in recent years, the schools minister has been the one constant throughout, and his impact on education policy has been enormous – it is hard to think of a politician who has had a bigger impact on schools in recent times.  

The phonics and multiplication checks, changes to Early Learning Goals, the Early Career Framework, changes to NPQs and proposed changes to initial teacher training were all driven from his office.

His particular interest in the importance of phonics had a sense of almost missionary zeal about it at times. 

A change in direction after Nick Gibb's departure?

There is no doubt that Mr Gibb’s departure and the prospect of a "new broom" sweeping through the department raises all sorts of questions when it comes to schools policy.

Will we now see a shift in direction from the new ministerial team that enters the department? 

Will they take the opportunity to review and rethink some of the policies that have been set in train by their predecessors?

As is the case when any organisation has a new leadership team, one has to assume they will be taking the opportunity to step back and evaluate all aspects of their new department’s work and the policies they are pursuing.  

We will all be keeping a close eye on what impact these personnel changes will have on key issues that affect schools directly, such as assessment, curriculum and accountability.  

Pruning back the excess 

When it comes to curriculum, I sense little appetite among the profession for another major overhaul at this point in time, but a new schools minister could do some immediate good and win friends by engaging in a little curriculum "pruning".

They could strip back the bloated primary grammar, punctuation and spelling curriculum. Such a move is long overdue. 

But it is perhaps in the field of assessment where we will get a real sense of whether the new team is looking for continuity or a fresh approach.

There is no doubt that many of those reforms, such as the new multiplication check, were strongly linked to the recently departed schools’ minister.

Watched with interest by all

As such, the question is whether his successor will be equally committed to them or be prepared to take a fresh look.

Now would certainly be a good opportunity to ask again what purpose all the different assessments that take place during a child’s time in primary school really serve.  

The new minister will, of course, have countless other topics to be briefed on as they arrive in the department, including the controversial reforms to initial teacher training that have received widespread criticism from across much of the sector. The new minister will have to decide whether to press ahead or pause and think again.  

One thing is for sure, though: there will be little time for them to get their feet under the table before important decisions on such crucial matters need to be made.   

While only time will tell whether we are in for "more of the same" or a change of course, there is no doubt this latest reshuffle has the potential to be a pivotal moment in the direction of schools policy.

James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders

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