`This is very much going to be a two-way process'

12th September 2014 at 01:00
But despite conciliatory tone, Nicky Morgan is unlikely to halt unpopular reforms

Ask any teacher or student about the first week back at school and they will say it is challenging. For education secretary Nicky Morgan, last week proved no different.

Appointed at the end of the last academic year, Ms Morgan spent the summer doing "a lot of reading" as she attempted to get to grips with a department that is one of the biggest spenders in government, she told TES.

But as she prepared to win back the support of teachers alienated by her predecessor, Michael Gove, Ms Morgan was immediately forced to go on the defensive, denying reports that the Conservative manifesto would call for all schools to set classes by ability.

The decision to replace Mr Gove with a relative unknown came as a major shock to the profession. But the subtext - that he had become toxic to many teachers - was clear. Ms Morgan's appointment was intended to be a soothing balm, diluting the hostility directed towards the Department for Education's reform agenda.

That conciliatory message was one that Ms Morgan was keen to push in an exclusive interview and webchat with TES. Teachers, she said, were "passionate", "committed" and "dedicated". She revealed that she had sent an email to every teacher during their first week back at school, "thanking them for the hard work they have put in".

"This is very much going to be a two-way process - that's where I want to start from," she added.

But although she may differ from her predecessor - being both a "woman and a mother", as she pointed out - this change in tone is unlikely to translate into a change of policy. Hopes of an about-turn on unpopular reforms, such as scrapping national curriculum levels, decoupling AS-levels and A-levels and introducing tougher GCSEs, have been quickly extinguished.

Ms Morgan has already spoken of her desire to see these plans through and has even announced a controversial policy that would require secondary schools to enter all students for GCSEs that are part of the English Baccalaureate performance measure. Under the proposal, which will be included in the Conservative Party's election manifesto, no school could be graded good or outstanding by Ofsted unless every child was entered for the EBac.

`Education is absolutely vital'

Ms Morgan, who was privately educated at Surbiton High School before reading law at the University of Oxford, said the proposal would keep "options open" for students, because the EBac subjects were the ones that universities and employers "look out for". The idea is an escalation of Mr Gove's focus on core academic subjects, rather than a step away from his ideology.

Similarly, when asked about the prospect of state schools being run for profit under a future Conservative government - a notion viscerally opposed by many teachers - Ms Morgan agreed that the idea was unpopular but refused to rule it out.

"I think we are very clear - and that the sector is very clear - about the importance of not-for-profit," she said. "[For-profit] is something I'm happy to have lots of further advice and emails on. I suspect that most people may not be very keen on it, but it's something - well, you'd have to think very carefully.

"I think, actually, the not-for-profit model has worked extremely well and we have really successful academies and academy sponsors, and what we want to see is more of the best schools, more successful academies, more free schools, more university technical colleges - things that really work for students that are at the heart of the system."

Ms Morgan, whose first ministerial role was in the Treasury, was also unable to confirm whether the schools budget would be protected under a future Conservative government.

"As a Treasury minister, I always knew that sitting in front of a camera, or indeed anywhere, and talking about spending is a tricky thing to do," she said. "Education is absolutely vital to our country and to our future, and it will be a core part of our election plans and our manifesto. I'm not going to write the next Budget but I very much hope that it will be [chancellor] George Osborne who will be delivering it come late May."

Ms Morgan, a former lawyer, said improving careers advice and establishing better links between business and schools were aims that she was keen to pursue, as was a greater focus on mental health issues among pupils. Yet, although undoubtedly important, these matters are on the fringe in policy terms, suggesting that the broader reforms that are already in motion will not be halted.

After a couple of months in power, the education secretary will now be fairly clear about what her new position in frontline politics will involve, particularly in the run-up to next year's general election. But Ms Morgan's rapid rise - she is one of only three Cabinet members first elected to Parliament in the 2010 election - is a clear indication of her standing within her party.

Back in January, she turned heads with a speech urging her fellow Conservatives to stop using the language of "hate" if they wanted to win the next general election. The public, she said, had grown tired of "hearing politicians talk about who we hated - we're anti-this, we're anti-that, we don't like them, we don't want them here, we don't want them doing this".

She added: "We never say, actually, we are on the side of these people, we want this to happen and we think this is great."

To stand a chance of getting the teaching profession back onside, she will need to stick with this sentiment. But there are likely to be many tough weeks ahead.

Watch the webchat with Nicky Morgan

Nicky Morgan CV

1972 Born in Kingston, Surrey

1983-90 Attended Surbiton High School, Surrey

1990-93 Studied law at St Hugh's College, Oxford

1994-97 Traineeassistant solicitor, Theodore Goddard

1998-2002 Assistant solicitor, Allen and Overy

2002-10 Corporate professional support lawyer, Travers Smith

2010 Elected MP for Loughborough

2013 Economic secretary to the Treasury

April 2014 Financial secretary to the Treasury and minister for women

July 2014 Education secretary and minister for women and equalities


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