After Theresa May’s January reshuffle saw Justine Greening removed as Education Secretary, there has been considerable speculation as to how the new secretary Damian Hinds would handle the issues he stands to inherit, and whether his priorities would align with those of his predecessor or with those of the Prime Minister.
Setting out his new policy proposals this weekend, Hinds has downplayed the extent of his ambitions, acknowledging the difficulties the school system currently faces and stating his intention to avoid any grand new projects or schemes for the time being – “education does not need more upheaval”. Crucially, Hinds has clarified his position on grammar schools: while he has no plans to open any new grammar schools, he is keen for existing grammar schools to expand, especially in areas where there is a proven demand for additional selective school options. However, it remains entirely possible that Hinds’s plans for grammar schools may expand in the future; while Theresa May’s proposal to open new grammar schools is no longer feasible with her present majority, the scheme has not been forgotten, and it seems highly probable that Hinds would be in favour of opening new grammar schools should the opportunity arise.
Justine Greening was generally understood to oppose May’s planned grammar school reforms, and there is speculation that her removal may have been intended to smooth the way for grammar school expansions in the future. Greening has been better-liked by the teaching community than her predecessor Gove, and she won a measure of respect from the teaching unions for her frankness about the education system’s budgetary and recruitment problems. This may have proven to be a liability for Greening, however, who was perceived by some of her fellow MPs as being too soft on the unions and unwilling to carry out Conservative reforms.
The only other substantive proposal from Hinds is the adjustment of university fees, suggesting that the cost of tuition ought to be tied to the quality of the university and the job prospects offered by the degree, with “soft” subjects like the humanities charged at a lower rate. This plan has already been branded as unworkable by universities and MPs from both parties, who do not see how universities are to make up the shortfall in funding the proposal will bring and who question the logic of making science-based subjects more expensive at a time when science and engineering graduates are so urgently needed.
For those in the education sector, Hinds’s appointment and the platform he has laid out has prompted little optimism. Despite acknowledging the human and financial problems that schools face, his passion for reform seems to outstrip his passion for the hard (and, in Greening’s case, thankless) task of setting the education system back on its feet and arresting the current state of freefall. Only a few weeks into his tenure, it remains possible that Hinds’s enthusiasm for reform may be tempered when confronted by the realities of the situation, but until then there remains a palpable concern in the sector that the urgent changes that schools need will be left on the backburner in favour of the very “upheaval” Hinds has stated his intention to avoid.