'Theo Agnew has a lot on his plate as new schools minister - including defending the whole academies model'

Replacing Lord Nash with Theo Agnew may appear a like-for-like substitution, writes our Westminster insider. But the new minister will be dealing with a new political reality

The Secret Adviser

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John Nash. Wealthy, Tory donor, long-standing interest in schools, still held a close interest to one academy chain in particular, given a peerage and placed in charge of all academies in England.

Not exactly the textbook CV for someone holding a politically sensitive role, you might think.

So when Lord Nash told the education secretary a few weeks ago that he felt he had done his time as academies minister and wished to step down, the hunt was on for a replacement.

Step forward newly ennobled Lord Agnew. Wealthy, Tory donor, long-standing interest in schools, still holds a close interest to one academy chain, now given a peerage and placed in charge of all academies in England.

There are a few things worth exploring about this role, which, despite being the most junior in the Department of Education political hierarchy, is arguably the most important, along with Nick Gibb, in terms of the day-to-day impact on the majority of secondary schools in this country.

It was really Andrew Adonis who made this role what it was. In the early days of the Blair government, he was the first person to be given a peerage (and zapped over from No 10) to manage this new, politically high-profile project. He took to it with gusto – I distinctly remember how he used to hold weekly project meetings in the department, personally getting involved with every single one of these new innovative projects.  He and his team of officials would literally read line by line down a spreadsheet – what’s happening with school X? When will school Y be rebuilt? What’s the issue stopping school Z opening as an academy? 

This was self-evidently not, as was the accusation at the time, a privatised market. This was the DfE being more micro than micro. As a signal of how effective/controlling/lobbyable he was (delete as is your preference), Adonis talks in his book Education Education Education about how he was always available on his mobile to academy sponsors who needed him to unblock an issue, and could get most things resolved in a day. Tens if not hundreds of early academies opened by sheer force of his personality and will.

John Nash followed squarely in that tradition. Unlike his amiable but basically useless predecessor Jonathan Hill, Nash knew that his job was to drive academy projects, and that meant making full use of the hard and soft power of the DfE. But unlike Adonis, he had not tens but hundreds and thousands to deal with. Nevertheless, he took the same approach. If you visited his office in the DfE, you would be confronted by a huge floor to ceiling map showing the location of all open academies in England. Like Adonis, he used to hold weekly meetings of the relevant civil servants where they gazed at this map and updated him on progress. I once made the (in retrospect unhelpful) comparison to a Second World War general pushing battalions of troops around a map of Europe. But that is genuinely the best way of describing his style.

Such an approach was, by its very nature, pretty invisible to the outside world. But believe me, if you were an academy or potential academy on the map, and the attention fell on you, you knew about it pretty quickly.

The second thing that has marked Lord Nash’s tenure is the way in which he has – let’s not mince words here – held an increasingly large bag of taxpayers’ cash in his hand, to encourage taxpayer-funded Mats to take on taxpayers’ schools.

Variously called the untouchables, schools no one wants, or just difficult schools, this has become an increasingly vexing issue within the DfE. The current approach is to essentially strike deals with academy chains to agree to take on such schools. In many ways, this resembles a reverse auction. The relevant RSC approaches the identified preferred academy chain and asks if they’ll take on school X. Academy chain says yes, for a certain amount of money – to pay off legacy debt, or provide funds for restructuring, or to sort out buildings, or whatever. The RSC sucks their cheeks and offers a small sum. Academy chain laughs and says their trustees would never agree that, and counteroffers. RSC shakes their head and say ministers could never agree that, and they might walk away. Eventually, mostly, they come to an agreeable sum of money. If not, often the school is shopped around to another trust who may take it on for less money. If the deal really can’t be done with anyone, then the DfE is faced with a Baverstock situation – where the school has to be closed.

This is a pretty uncomfortable situation all round. From a nerdy economist perspective, it’s fascinating – a series of natural experiments to see how the education system prices risk, and, as the numbers of deals and rebrokerages increases, the creation of an increasingly liquid market that establishes a standard clearing price. But from almost anyone else’s perspective – including current ministers – it is neither sustainable, nor really affordable, nor particularly morally comfortable. One of Theo Agnew’s main jobs will be to try and work out what the better alternative to this model is.

His second job will be to do something which I never really expected a Conservative minister to have to do – which is to defend the academies programme. All the mood music coming from the DfE at the moment is that the top brass are at best agnostic and at worst actively sceptical to a lot of the current practices of the structure of school management. They are also faced with a resurgent Labour party that has a pretty clear statement of what it would do. The magic money tree may be flourishing elsewhere in government, but it’s unlikely to do so for much longer in DfE when it comes to academies.

But the trouble remains that, like democracy, the current set up of Mats may be the worst way of tackling underperforming schools apart from all the others. There remain long lists of schools due for either forced academy conversion or rebrokerage, and a newly invigorated school improvement agenda targeted around the social mobility opportunity areas. If Mats – reformed, undoubtedly - aren’t in play as a way of at least partially addressing these issues, then I’m not sure who else is. Theo Agnew may come to miss the days when all he had to worry about was Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.

The secret adviser works in Westminster, having spent several years working in education on both the political and non-political side, in charities and on campaigns, and has worked with ministers of all political parties

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The Secret Adviser

The author works in Westminster, having spent several years working in education on both the political and non-political side, in charities and on campaigns, and has worked with ministers of all political parties.

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