'Considerable challenge' facing new education secretary

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Challenges ahead: Michelle Donelan is the sixth person in eight years to hold the post of education secretary and the third under Boris Johnson

The new education secretary faces “a considerable challenge” both taking forward the White Paper proposals and addressing teacher recruitment and retention, including looming teacher pay negotiations.

Michelle Donelan has been appointed as secretary of state for education following the promotion of Nadhim Zahawi to the post of chancellor.

Mr Zahawi had only been in post for 10 months, one of the shortest stints of any education secretary in recent history.

Top of the to-do list for the new education secretary will be the impending publication of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) recommendations for teacher pay rises – expected next week.

The DfE is pushing for an 8.9% rise for new teachers in 2022/23 but just 3% for experienced teachers.

Ms Donelan will find herself torn between teaching unions, some of which are demanding 12% pay rises across the board or at least inflation-matched increases, and the Treasury which is reluctant to offer more funding.

In an interesting twist, should Ms Donelan lobby the Treasury for more funding for teacher pay, it will be Mr Zahawi who has the final say on the matter.

Speaking to the media on the morning of July 6, Mr Zahawi said he would be waiting to see what the STRB has to say on the matter before commenting further.

Elsewhere, Ms Donelan will also have to pick up the pieces of the Schools Bill, which has seen several sections pulled after facing severe criticism in the House of Lords.

Critics of the Bill, which was introduced after the publication of the recent education White Paper, said that it gave the DfE too much power, not least in setting new standards for academies to follow, the power to impose trustees on academy chains, and the creation of new “compliance direction” powers.

One group of members in the Lords had tabled amendments proposing to strip 16 clauses from the Bill. However, late last month the DfE acted to pull a number of clauses and has said it will come back to Parliament with “revised proposals”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said all of this would mean a challenging start for the new education secretary.

He said: “Nadhim Zahawi has been in the post for less than a year during which time he has introduced a schools White Paper which proposes very significant attainment targets and structural changes to the education system with no real idea of how either of these objectives will be achieved. A large section of the accompanying Schools Bill has had to be withdrawn because of criticism that it represented an unacceptable centralisation of power. Michelle Donelan will therefore face a considerable challenge in taking forward these proposals.

“Furthermore, the actual crisis facing schools and colleges is the fact that there is a very serious problem of teacher shortages which is making it difficult for them to recruit the teachers they need. This comes after a decade of pay erosion which has seen the real value of salaries fall by a fifth.

“It is a crisis compounded by soaring energy costs which are putting intense strain on budgets that simply cannot withstand any more pressure. These are real and present dangers to the education system that will require urgent resolution.”

Since 2020, Ms Donelan has served as the universities minister and then the higher and further education minister. She also served on the Education Select Committee from 2017 until 2019.

Born in Cheshire, she was educated in a comprehensive school and at 38-years-old is the second youngest person to hold this office of state.

Mr Barton added: “While we extend a warm welcome to Michelle Donelan as education secretary and wish her well in her new role, we have to express our concern at the high turnover rate of education secretaries. This is the sixth incumbent in eight years and the third during Boris Johnson’s premiership.

“Education is a vital public service and a complex sector which requires deep understanding, knowledge, and continuity. This constant chopping and changing does not provide stable leadership.”

The disruption at the DfE continued this week with the resignation of school minister Robin Walker and children’s minister Will Quince on Wednesday (July 5).

Mr Quince confirmed via social media that he was resigning over prime minister Boris Johnson’s appointment of Chris Pincher as the Tory deputy whip.

He said that he had accepted assurances that the prime minister had been unaware of allegations of groping against Mr Pincher before he appointed him, but now realised that these assurances were “inaccurate”.

Likewise, Mr Walker said in his resignation letter: “You won the confidence of your colleagues just a few weeks ago but the events and revelations have since undermined this.”

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