40 years of education secretaries

40 years of education secretaries

Back in April 2019, I wrote a blog looking back at what had been my 40 years working in education. What I didn’t mention then was the band of trailblazers and journeymen/women politicians who were in charge of education during that time. I’m talking about the 23 men and women who held the office of secretary of state for education from September 1979 until the present day. The first of those headed up what was then called the Department for Education and Science but the science bit was dropped in 1992 after John Major’s election win. Subsequently the department was re-named Education and Employment, Education and Skills and then the Department for Children, Schools and Families before returning to be the plain old Department for Education in 2010. Some of those names reflect an aspiration for the wider role of education – whatever became of that?

Before reading on, how many of those 23 secretaries of state can you even remember, let alone with affection? How many went on to higher things? (I was still at school for most of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure from 1970 to 1974. I wonder what happened to her.)

Here’s a quick run through of all 23. As a group they provide a potted history of education in this country over the past 45 years.

We start in September 1979 with:

Mark Carlisle, who is largely forgotten now but who has the dubious distinction of having introduced the assisted places scheme which gave free places at independent schools to what were supposed to be disadvantaged children (they largely weren’t) at the same time as removing subsidies to school meals.

Sir Keith Joseph was a genuine Tory grandee who on the one hand tried but failed to introduce university tuition fees but on the other hand did pave the way for the creation of GCSEs out of the divisive O level and CSE exams.

Kenneth Baker is now often seen as a kindly elder statesman but was portrayed on Spitting Image at the time as a slimy slug; one journalist wrote of him and his greater career aspirations: “I have seen the future and it smirks”. But he did introduce the national curriculum, in-service training days, still referred to by some as “Baker Days”, and city technology colleges, which led on to the specialist schools programme.

John MacGregor was in post for 18 months, a lifetime by modern standards, but his tenure was basically carrying on from Kenneth Baker’s plans for the curriculum by trying, as he later said, “to put a three gallon tank into a pint pot”. Much of his time was spent on the history curriculum, particularly around the place of British history and factual knowledge.

Kenneth Clarke tried to review and simplify the emerging national curriculum assessment requirements, published school test results for the first time, introduced the grant-maintained programme which allowed schools to “opt out” of local authority control and allowed all schools to run their own budgets. And Ofsted was born.

John Patten’s sole claim to fame as secretary of state was describing the great educator, Tim Brighouse, at the time the chief education officer of Birmingham, as “a nutter” saying “I fear for Birmingham with this madman let loose, wandering around the streets, frightening the children”. Brighouse sued, won and donated the damages to charity. Class.

Gillian Shephard was reprimanded by prime minister John Major for saying that corporal punishment, which had been banned in state schools in 1986, “can be a useful deterrent”. “Shephard takes a caning from the PM” was The Independent’s headline.

David Blunkett was the new Labour government’s first secretary of state in 1997. He championed literacy and numeracy, increased funding to schools, abolished the assisted places scheme (which Tony Blair later regretted), launched the Sure Start programme for parents and their pre-school children – and introduced university tuition fees and student loans.

Membership – Discover SSAT membership

Estelle Morris is still the only former comprehensive school teacher to have held the office. She is also probably the only name on this list that the education world remembers with genuine affection and is almost certainly the only senior politician ever to have resigned because she felt she “wasn’t up to the job”.

Charles Clarke encouraged the further development of the specialist schools programme with an increase in the number of available specialisms. He also allowed some universities to start charging top-up fees.

Ruth Kelly rejected the 2005 Tomlinson Report which proposed the restructuring of 14-19 education to include a four-tier diploma to replace GCSEs and A Levels. She also wanted to introduce controversial trust schools. The plan was dropped but later re-surfaced with Michael Gove’s free schools programme.

Alan Johnson was an affable education secretary who encouraged parents to spend more time with their children to help develop literacy and other skills. Teaching unions welcomed his teacher pay reforms which strengthened the conditions of service of part-time staff and introduced incremental pay rises based on performance management.

Ed Balls is now more widely known for dancing to Gangnam Style on Strictly, a distinction definitely not shared with anyone else on the list. In 2007 he became secretary of state for the new Department for Children, Schools and Families which aimed to support all young people up to the age of 19 by bringing together education and children’s policies for the first time. He raised the education leaving age to 18 and scrapped the national curriculum tests for 14 year olds.

The arrival of the coalition government in 2010 saw a return to the plain old Department for Education, which it has been ever since.

Michael Gove. Where to start? He immediately cancelled Labour’s Building Schools for the Future plans, expanded the academies programme for good and outstanding schools and reformed the national curriculum with an emphasis on British authors, grammar and factual recall. He introduced free schools and multi-academy trusts and re-structured vocational qualifications, GCSEs and A Levels. He wrote a foreword to the King James Bible (yes, really) before sending out a copy to every school and railed against “the Blob” (education insiders). To this day, members of the Blob ask each other, “Do you remember where you were when Gove was sacked?”

Nicky Morgan was into character-building, grit and resilience, which she had to show in spades after being sacked by Theresa May in 2016.

Justine Greening was also minister for women and equalities. She was keen on opening new grammar schools and created the DfE’s social mobility action plan until she, too, was sacked by Theresa May in 2018.

Apparently Damian Hinds introduced first aid and CPR courses to the school curriculum – who knew? His was an admirably light-touch hand on the tiller, although he did scrap the floor and coasting school targets and paved the way for the new early career teacher framework. He was sacked by Boris Johnson but returned through the back door as an education minister earlier this year.

Gavin Williamson. As Barry Cryer used to say, “He’s hard to ignore but it’s well worth the effort”.

We’re now getting to the stage where being education secretary was determined by a political game of pass the parcel.

Nadhim Zahawi held the parcel for almost ten months before replacing Rishi Sunak as chancellor.

Michelle Donelan’s tenure of two days was somewhat briefer. Unsurprisingly, she became the shortest-serving cabinet minister in UK history.

James Cleverly, the bane of nominative determinists everywhere, held the post for almost two months.

Kit Malthouse managed 49 days.

Gillian Keegan has so far done a “f*****g good job”, even if she does say so herself.

As you might have gathered from the last five entries, nobody recently at Sanctuary Buildings has either set the world alight or shown that they have the remotest interest in or understanding of education.

But that’s it. 23 secretaries of state in my last 44 years. It must be time for me to go, too, before another one pops up, so I’m retiring from SSAT at the end of term. There have been lots of ups and downs in those four and a half decades but, everything considered, I wouldn’t change anything – much.

It’s been a great privilege working with you all. Thanks for having me.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Beyond Manifestos – new pamphlet from SSAT

30 November 2023

Cracking Christmas Reads to Diversify Your Book Collection

13 December 2023