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Some advice for Justine Greening: here's how to go down in history as one of the great education secretaries

Congrats on keeping the best job in cabinet, Justine. Now, how to make a success of it? Focus on early years, invest in identifying learning difficulties and devote money to CPD: one data expert writes to the education secretary

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Congrats on keeping the best job in cabinet, Justine. Now, how to make a success of it? Focus on early years, invest in identifying learning difficulties and devote money to CPD: one data expert writes to the education secretary

Dear Justine Greening, 

Congratulations on keeping the best job in Cabinet. Education may lack the glamour of foreign affairs, the thrill of defence or the wigs and gowns of justice (and it certainly lacks the potential thrills and spills of Brexit), but it is, without doubt, more important than any of them.

It’s undeniable that a country that fails to provide an excellent education for all of its children will severely restrict the calibre of tomorrow’s teachers, soldiers, doctors and entrepreneurs. 

I expect your in-tray is already overflowing with unsolicited advice urging you to launch initiatives, commission inquiries and adopt campaigns. Ignore it. Count to ten and do nothing new. 

Just because you and your predecessors signed off initiatives years ago, doesn’t mean they are complete. Schools are still wrestling with new GCSEs, Progress 8, life after levels, new Key Stage 2 Sats and a host of other things. Even academisation, which feels like it started in the Late Middle Ages, is still a work in progress.

I once showed a new schools minister a long list of policies enacted by his predecessors that were about to be implemented. His surprise was palpable (though he wasn’t, as it turned out, sufficiently surprised to delay piling further exciting initiatives on schools).

Your forbearance will undoubtedly be tested by your desire – not to mention the prime minister’s – to "get on with the job". But remember this: for every initiative shelved, you’ll save tens, even hundreds, of millions of pounds.

Making the most of the money

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: use the money saved to fund the unglamorous stuff that really makes a difference – teaching and learning. I appreciate this won’t provide you with photo-ops or headlines. It will, however, highlight your understanding of what really makes education tick.

If you’re not convinced, consider the following.

Half a billion pounds was spent by a previous government on vocational diplomas that were scrapped after two short years by its successor. Imagine how that money could have been spent to avoid the recruitment crisis that plagues our schools now or ease the transition to a new fair funding system. Oh, and as we’re on the subject of recruitment, please exempt schools from the apprenticeship levy. Education, unlike other sectors, has its own initial training programmes.

Once you have the cash, where should you spend it? You can’t fix everything at once, so spend it where it’s needed most. Focus on early years, invest in identifying learning difficulties and devote money to Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

Disadvantage starts early. If the gap isn’t closed then it endures through GCSEs and beyond. A major new grammar school programme now looks less likely. But if we are to have more socially inclusive schools, give every child the best chance by making sure they are well taught from the start of primary.

Disadvantaged children need to be receiving an excellent education right from the beginning in order to close the attainment gap before it becomes entrenched; age 11 is simply too late to rectify entrenched problems associated with disadvantage or an inadequate education.

It’s a similar story when it comes to hard-to-spot learning difficulties. We aren’t identifying children with mild-to-moderate learning challenges like dyslexia and working memory early enough. That leaves secondary schools struggling with issues that should have been nipped in the bud earlier. It’s not only these children’s potential we’re wasting; unaddressed learning problems can quickly consume teaching time and disrupt more than just one child’s learning.

Data and development

Finally, there is the much-neglected topic of CPD. Yes, I appreciate that the words "innovative Secretary of State" and "continual professional development" don’t make for a snappy press release. And it’s equally true that your predecessors avoided offering much beyond warm words. Nevertheless, no other profession devotes as little time and expense to CPD as teaching, and yet no-one seriously doubts how fundamental it is to improved practice. So do what you can.

Focus investment for maximum impact. Persuade schools to learn how to use and interpret data, to apply research evidence and to evaluate interventions objectively. Encourage them to work closely with bodies like the Education Endowment Foundation, the College of Teaching, the Institute for Effective Education, the Education Policy Institute and the Teacher Development Trust. If you’re feeling brave, float the possibility that at least some CPD should be mandatory after a certain number of years post-qualification.

If you do as I advise, will you go down in history as one of the great secretaries of state? If your aim is political rock star status, probably not. But if you’d prefer to have a string of hits that become classics, I hope I’ve given you the intro to a few of them.

Yours sincerely,

Greg Watson

Chief Executive, GL Assessment

Greg Watson is the chief executive of GL Assessment, provider of formative assessments to UK schools. He tweets as @Greg_GL_Assess

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