What makes a good politician? Someone who answers questions or who manages not to? It’s an impressive skill to be able to speak eloquently and charmingly without saying much at all. Never directly answering the question you are being asked will mean you always stay on message and don’t put your foot in it.
But it also means the public never gets to know the person representing them and making the decisions that affect their lives. They never find out what makes that person tick. They never discover how they really feel, what drives them, what they feel passionately about.
In a sector such as finance or manufacturing, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But in education it does. It really does. For education is about people – tiny people, medium-sized people, big people – and the education secretary holds in his hands their futures, their hopes and dreams. They have the right to know who that person is beyond a stellar political CV.
Education is an emotive and emotionally charged arena: passions and tensions run high, simply because there is a lot at stake. Children get just one chance – and the adults know that all too well. With the stakes so high, it’s crucially important to know who is steering the ship. What are their motivations? Where are they taking us?
However, eight months into Damian Hinds’ tenure, we know very little about our latest education secretary. He says “there’s no job I would rather have done”, but then they all say that, or a variation thereof.
What is the education secretary thinking?
We know he’s a fan of grammar schools (a prerequisite for the role currently), quite likes a bit of edtech and wants to reduce accountability and workload. He’s given teachers a pay rise, school leaders a real-terms pay cut and FE lecturers nothing at all. Oh, and he loves character education.
To help us out, he and his team at the Department for Education have drawn up a handy shopping list of priorities. It’s meant for external policy groups but it offers everyone a clue as to the level of policymaking going on. We are apparently “striving for world-class education, training, care … for everyone whatever your background”. Well, yes, that’s very lovely (bit.ly/HindsPriorities).
But just in case you thought that they hadn’t actually considered how to do it, there’s a handy “How we’ll get there” section that reveals groundbreaking plans, such as “recruit, develop and retain the best people” (why didn’t anyone think of that before?) and “make every £1 count” (except the ones being spent on expanding grammar schools, obviously).
It doesn’t inspire me or fill me with much confidence. Neither does an education secretary who feels as though he’s simply going through the motions and not rocking the boat too much on the journey to somewhere else.
Being elusive in answering questions may earn him points with the prime minister but it won’t do him any favours with the people on the ground. His laidback no-notes persona may appear stylish to some but it runs the risk of looking arrogant.
It’s great that he’s prioritising accountability and workload, but then he has to: the recruitment and retention crisis has grown too huge for the DfE to ignore. But where are the big ideas? It’s no use just borrowing Nicky Morgan’s character education fixation to add a bit of interest (Theresa May has a pair of brown leather trousers he might like, too).
Where is the “incredibly impressive” politician that environment secretary Michael Gove (remember him?) described on Hinds’ appointment? It seems we’ll have to wait a little longer to get a glimpse of him.