Your guide to the UK's education ministers

19/08/16

A week is a long time in politics, and rarely has that been truer than in recent times!

The fallout from the EU referendum and elections in Wales and Northern Ireland has meant new ministerial faces and spokespersons for education appearing simultaneously in all corners of the UK.

As it’s become harder than ever to keep track of the ever-changing educational landscape, we thought it would be helpful to set out the current state of play. 

England

It’s been all-change to the faces on both sides of the House of Commons. 

Former Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan MP was replaced by Justine Greening MP in new Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle. 

What might Justine Greening's priorities be?

Justine Greening spoke to TES, and recounted her state-school background at Oakwood Comprehensive School in Rotherham. She is now looking forward to “the chance to help build and improve the very state education system that gave me my start as a young person.”

Greening is approaching the task aware of the difficulties. “I know that there are many, many challenges facing teachers today, and many pressures on our education system.” Her aim, she says, is, “to work steadily and sensibly through all of those issues in as measured a way as possible.”

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) believes Greening's priorities should be:

  • The overhaul of assessment; 
  • The introduction of a new national funding formula; 
  • The freedom for good and outstanding schools to remain part of their Local Authority if they choose;
  • Protected curriculum time for PSHE in all schools.

The Guardian invited five education experts to give their views, with suggestions including the safeguarding of teaching assistants against cuts, a decision about which organisational bodies schools are accountable to, and a fresh look at recent changes.

Changes to education

White paper Educational Excellence Everywhere sought to ensure all schools converted to academies by 2020, but Nicky Morgan bowed to pressure to backtrack, with exemptions for high-performing schools. The bill Education for All was mentioned, but not as prominently as many thought it would be, in the Queen’s Speech in May 2016, which TES reported. More details are expected by the autumn. 

Grammar schools back in the spotlight

In an interesting new development, Theresa May is said to be in favour of overturning the ban on the creation of new grammar schools that has been in place since 1998. An announcement is anticipated at the Conservative Party conference in October. Whilst the move hasn’t attracted widespread support in the education sector and in parliament, it’s expected to appeal to Tory grassroots supporters and the traditional element within the party. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have announced their intention to oppose the measure. See our piece on grammar schools for a fuller account. 

Who is the Shadow Secretary for Education?

Within the last twelve months there have been no fewer than four Shadow Secretaries for Education in the opposition Labour Party. Tristram Hunt left the role in September 2015, and since then there has been Lucy Powell and Pat Glass serving under current Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn. The incumbent, who accepted the position on 1st July 2016, is Angela Rayner. 

What are Angela Rayner's priorities?

Angela Rayner is a fresh face in British politics, having made her maiden speech in the House of Commons in June 2015. She has risen rapidly through the ranks, with two promotions in quick succession. She has made her views on education clear in a speech to the House which she has posted to her website called Investing in early years education is an investment in Britain's future. Rayner is a believer that “getting a good start in life should not be a privilege: it is every child's right.” She sees the focus of Labour's education policies as being “a bigger vision for early education and childcare.” This, she believes, could be developed by: 

  • a relentless and holistic focus on the early years to improve life chances and well-being;
  • affordable, high-quality childcare; 
  • easing pressures on working parents through support services aimed at encouraging skills development and opportunities to retrain when returning to the workforce;
  • examining new strategies to support vulnerable children.

Further information

See the Department for Education and Labour

Wales

Kirsty Williams of the Liberal Democrats is the Welsh AM for the Department for Education and Skills under the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. She was formerly the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and her new role came in May 2016. She serves as the only Liberal Democrat in the Labour-led Welsh Government's cabinet. 

Williams stated that the Welsh Government is “embarking on a major reform agenda, the biggest education reform that we have seen in Wales since the 1940s. The First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Education, have agreed to work together to bring forward a number of ambitious and innovative proposals.”

First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones has set out the details of the agreement reached with Kirsty Williams. He said, “Kirsty has a key role in driving forward a world-leading curriculum and raising standards across the profession.”

Education Priorities

Kirsty Williams’s priorities include:

  • reducing infant class sizes;
  • ensuring every child gets the best start in life through expanding the Pupil Deprivation Grant;
  • prioritising schools’ access to super-fast broadband within the national programme;
  • incentivising, recognising and promoting teaching excellence to raise standards across the board;
  • promoting and enhancing academic and vocational routes into further and higher education;
  • reviewing the impact of current policy on surplus school places, with emphasis on rural schools, to better take account of future growth trends;
  • prioritising support for enhanced links between education and industry, enabling innovation and entrepreneurship across public and private sectors.

Who is the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education in Wales?

Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education, Children, Skills & Lifelong Learning is Llyr Huws Gruffydd AM of Plaid Cymru. 

Further information

See the National Assembly for Wales

Northern Ireland

Since May 2016, Peter Weir of the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) has been the Minister of Education in Northern Ireland's Department of Education (DENI). 

DENI’s overall vision is “to ensure that every learner fulfils her or his potential at each stage of development.” Weir has stated his concern that challenging financial pressures which will impact on school budgets.

Priorities

Weir said: “Education is at the core of any society, and is not just about schools – it is about the development of our children’s personalities, talents and abilities to their fullest potential.”

DENI’s stated priorities include: 

  • raising standards for all and closing the performance gap;
  • developing the education workforce and transforming education management;
  • improving the “learning environment”.

Investing in Teaching Workforce Scheme

Weir’s scheme will enable teachers aged over 55 to retire early and be replaced by recently qualified teachers. It will be launched at the start of the 2016/17 academic year.

Further information

See the Northern Ireland Assembly and NI Direct

Scotland

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills in Scotland is John Swinney, who serves in the Scottish National Party (SNP) under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. He has been in the role since 18th May 2016 and retains his concurrent post of Deputy First Minister.

Education priorities

The appointment of Swinney is a move that many believe signals the SNP's commitment to education as its top priority. Narrowing the attainment gap between children of high- and low-income parents is said to be a key area of concern that the SNP is eager to address. 

Opposition

The spokespeople for education in the Scottish opposition parties are:

  • Conservative: Liz Smith MSP
  • Labour: Iain Gray MSP
  • Liberal Democrats: Tavish Scott MSP.

Further information

See The Scottish Parliament

Have your say

Don’t forget that the Department for Education consults the public on a variety of related topics. Keep an eye on their current consultations and respond to any surveys of interest to help ensure your voice is heard. 

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