Give poor Justine a bit of time to settle into her job

22nd July 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

Last Sunday, Justine Greening gave her first interview as education secretary to the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. In a short slot, she outlined a series of high-level (and uncontroversial) points on the importance of good teachers and on social mobility, and said that she was open-minded on almost every other issue, including on grammar schools.

Much of the immediate reaction from teachers was along the lines of “But why didn’t she give any more details on topic [x]?” My response is that anyone who expected her to roll out a detailed plan on Sunday, or to commit to doing anything, or indeed to not doing anything, has no understanding of politics.

Consider the scenario that Justine Greening found herself in. She was appointed by the prime minister on Thursday morning. They will have had a 10-minute conversation or so, during which the PM would have set out (very) high-level thoughts, and Ms Greening would have nodded, while trying to process the reality of a job which, let’s not forget, she didn’t know she was going to get until she was in the room. Ministers, wisely, don’t over-prepare now – Jack Straw once went into a reshuffle firmly believing that he was about to become transport secretary and having sketched out a plan for railway reform. He was then made foreign secretary.

Since that time, she will have been given several bookshelves’ worth of documents from her private office in the DfE, all of which will be need to read. She will have had a whirlwind of introductory calls and meetings with key senior officials and external stakeholders, all of whom would have differing opinions on what is important.

She will also, incidentally, have had constituency work on Friday and Saturday. And as all of NiMo’s advisers will have departed with her, Ms Greening is doing all of this with minimal assistance from anyone working directly to her; and her own team will not be education experts.

She will, in other words, only have a high-level understanding of what she and No10 wish to pursue. She will also be acutely aware of the public finance angle to her work – until Brexit, the defining leitmotif of this government.

In addition, she will not have had any kind of conversation with the chancellor to establish precise boundaries and to understand what the outlook looks like – might there be more funding further down the line, or, indeed, more cuts to come?

It is, however, significant that she was put up on television on this first Sunday by Number 10. Her appearance shows two things; that Theresa May rates her, and that the government will continue to see education as a centrepiece for its domestic agenda. Both of these are to be welcomed.

There will be plenty of time for announcements. Her role on The Andrew Marr Show was to radiate a sense of purpose, and the message that the new government is up and running. To have committed to anything specific, under the circumstances, would have been naïve or foolish, and she was right to avoid it.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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