Emerging from a Gove shaped shadow: The policy challenges for Nicky Morgan

The big news coming out of today’s reshuffle was that Michael Gove – arguably the Cabinet’s biggest and controversial personality – was moved out of the position that he has made so firmly his own, Secretary of State for Education, to be replaced by the little known Nicky Morgan – formally Financial Secretary and Minister for Women.

Elected in 2010, Ms Morgan had a rapid rise, from serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the (now former) Universities and Science Minister David Willetts, to becoming an Assistant Government Whip in 2012, and then promotion to be Economic Secretary to the Treasury a year later. Most recently, in April this year, she was promoted to Financial Secretary and Minister for Women, attending Cabinet in this second role. Now the beanstalk has lofted her to the top office in the Department for Education (well, the DfE has rented out the top floor of its offices to Visit England, so not quite the top office, but I’m sure it’s the best one).

Whitehouse had met her in their work with pro-bono client Action Cerebral Palsy, where she proved to be impressively understanding of the intricacies related to special educational needs and disability, given that her background has been so firmly in finance. It is not expected that Morgan will steer the Department for Education away from Michael Gove’s agenda. However, it is likely she will look to re-build relationships with the unions and the education sector that have felt isolated by her predecessor’s renowned obstinacy. Nicky Morgan seems to be considered by the Prime Minister as a safe pair of hands to follow a controversial reformist incumbent, in a similar way to how Andrew Lansley was replaced by Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary after the contentious Health and Social Care Act.

On top of repairing relations with the teaching profession and the wider education sector, the Gove shaped ideological vacuum will mean there will also be some policy challenges for Morgan to address.  Gove’s schools reforms kept Labour on the back foot on education policy for the majority of this Parliament. However, as the reforming zeal cooled to allow implementation, the understandable focus of the Government in ensuring that the education reforms are successful have left gaping gaps for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to belatedly exploit in the run up to the General Election. Gove drove his school reforms with conscious blinkers to not distract the Department from pursuing other goals. Nicky Morgan has the chance to open her eyes and address the policy blind spots, but this would not be easy.

Those blind spots are:

Early years education  

It is widely agreed that the formative years of a child’s life are the most important to their health, education and social development, but there remains little consensus on the role of the State in this part of a person’s early development. The Government’s special education needs reforms – led by the Department for Education – has highlighted the inconsistency of comprehensive health and education support available to children with high needs, by creating a legal framework for those needs to be met but without establishing an early years infrastructure to adequately address it. Shadow Children’s Minister Lucy Powell has touched on something when she describes childcare as an “infrastructure problem” (although she bases her argument on the burden that poor childcare provision places on the economy by keeping parents out of work), while Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has effectively taken ownership of the early years education agenda of this Government.

Nicky Morgan will need to show that the Government now has a Secretary of State that is taking early years education seriously.  Too many children are arriving in primary school with identified and unsupported needs and it doesn’t matter how good primary schools are, for many children identifying such needs at 5, 6 or 7 is often too late for them to ever catch-up. The answer isn’t just making more cash available to create childcare provision, as the Government has so far done , because every expert we hear from constantly bemoan that the early years infrastructure is not fit for purpose and that health and education policy is too far apart (let alone welfare and parental leave policy on top). The answer? There isn’t a simply a single one – but system leadership is required to build a national consensus, so Morgan should empower one of her Ministers (Edward Timpson seems best placed) to form a cross-departmental early years council to ensure that education, health, welfare and business policy are all working in the same direction.  The Government already did this with adult disability policy, which provided a figurehead to offer the leadership the sector needs. Early years could benefit from the same.

Vocational education

Michael Gove has done little to dispel the view that he believed reforming vocational education was little more than a distraction to his core goals of transforming the schools system in the UK. Only belatedly, after losing ground on the issue to Labour, did the Government start rolling out major policy initiatives on this area such as reforming 16 to 19 vocational and introducing the Technical Baccalaureate (TechBach – originally a Labour plan). Cameron and Osborne are both enthusiasts of the “German model” of vocational training and have supported the introduction of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), which are being pioneered by former Conservative Education Secretary Ken Baker and the Baker Dearing Trust. However, UTCs are only being rolled out slowly and there has been speculation that Gove blocked their roll out because they are draining resources away from his free schools policy. Labour meanwhile have made vocational education a strong focus of their education policy agenda and have made encouraging noises about changing schools’ focus to building pupils’ character and wider skills, rather than simply to pass exams, with vocational education being a core part of this philosophy.

Ahead of the next general election, Morgan needs to do more to forcefully champion UTCs (and Studio Schools) to show that they have had the best answer to vocational training all along, rather than the public thinking that only Labour has the answers on this debate. Too few people are even aware UTCs exist and what they do.

The Curriculum

The Conservatives are making two seemingly conflicting arguments on the school curriculum. On the one hand, they say that bureaucrats in Whitehall should not tell schools what their teachers should teach, as teachers not empowered to teach about subjects they’re not enthusiastic about will not  inspire their students. However, on the other hand the former Education Secretary has been giving off the impression that he should decide what books children ought to read in school – despite insisting that schools should make this decision themselves. This impression of interfering has been substantiated by the fact that while the Government are not necessarily telling teachers what to teach, they have set very rigid conditions on how what they teach is assessed. This is also perhaps the most unwelcome aspect of the Government’s education reforms – the fact that a child’s education is now almost entirely measured on how they perform on the basis on a few hours in the hot summer months of June. You could not go any further from re-creating the realities of a working environment in the modern service economy.

Morgan could do a lot worse than move to tone down the emphasis on exams with some commitments to look-at re-introducing coursework models and teacher assessments, while emphasizing that the Government’s agenda has always been about empowering teachers – not shackling them – in order to win the profession back onside.

Nicky, over to you…