The education secretary’s vision for social mobility is a strong one, says Mark Lehain – now it’s up to the schools community to get on board

Greening’s plan is a definite step forward – now it’s down to us to deliver it.

It was always inevitable that education secretaries after Gove were going to have a tricky time.

He had years to prepare his agenda, a talent for communicating his plans, and a long-serving tight-knit team around him whose weapons were fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency… and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope (Michael). They understood how each part of the system connected to, and influenced, others, so they made changes to nearly every aspect, virtually all at once.

This was totally necessary. It also meant that anyone coming afterwards was inevitably going to oversee a phase of expanding and embedding existing reforms rather than conjuring up new ones. Indeed, Nicky Morgan was specifically tasked with calming things down at the DfE, in advance of the 2015 election, and Justine Greening has prided herself on keeping disputes with the sector to a minimum.

However, in politics if you’re not moving forward you’re probably going backwards, and a key part of maintaining momentum is a compelling narrative to tie things together coherently. In this regard, Justine has had a pretty tough time so far. She inherited a school funding squeeze, and had a divisive grammar school policy imposed on her too. Add in a disruptive General Election, and it’s not really surprising that she’s not had a chance to lay out her own distinctive course and say what she wants to accomplish in the role.

It’s up to us guys. Greening has listened, set out her vision, and now it’s all about the education family delivering

Yesterday’s “Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential” changed this. It was the first time the Secretary of State explicitly laid out a framework through which her Department for Education will operate. What does it tell us?

First of all, it clearly states what her priorities are and how she wants the sector to address them. It does so in a coherent fashion too; the four “ambitions” are a nice way to pull together the numerous challenges that the DfE is trying to address. It doesn’t try to pretend that these are novel or earth shattering either. I think it’s quite brave to be so open about the fact that this is about coordinating lots of small but important parts of the system – I like the humility with which it states things.

Secondly, it is a clear attempt to work with the sector. Having stated what the issues & ambitions are, the plan doesn’t give any specific metrics to measure success by. Again and again it talks about partnership, and listening to what people have told them needs to be done. This is what the education has asked for repeatedly over the years, and which some complained Gove and Morgan didn’t do enough of; now we have an EduSec making this a key part of their approach, will people step up to the mark and be constructive? I hope so.

Thirdly, within the warm words there are clear policies that I think take things in the right direction but which will upset others. For instance, to achieve the first “ambition”, that of narrowing the early years word gap, they are going to reform the Early Learning Goals to strengthen literacy and numeracy. I think this is fantastic, but it’s going to upset a lot of specialists who don’t share this view. Early years Twitter is going to be fun to watch as this is developed!

Finally, the plan is a clear attempt to move the narrative on from one of constant reforms to implementing the lessons of recent years. Shifting free school approvals to areas that haven’t yet had many; focusing funding for CPD and other things towards struggling schools and areas; supporting knowledge-rich curricula development; reigning in Ofsted and RSCs; Greening clearly wants us to know that she’s not abandoning the Gove/Morgan reforms, just moving us into a new phase where they’ll be directed towards the places that need them most, to avoid a deepening of the Matthew effect.

Will it work? Haven’t we heard this kind of thing forever? Maybe, and yes. But it definitely puts responsibility on education professionals to do what we’ve said we want to for years.

It’s up to us guys. Greening has listened, set out her vision, and now it’s all about the education family delivering. If she can develop the partnerships outlined in her plan and achieve her ambitions, we’ll feel better as a team, she’ll earn her place among the EdSec titans, and our kids’ futures will be all the brighter. Ready to step up to the mark?

Mark Lehain is Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence and Founder of Bedford Free School