Politics

School reforms up in air as Johnson turmoil wipes out ministers

Uncertainty reigns after spate of ministerial resignations and PM's decision to quit

Uncertainty reigns after spate of ministerial resignations and PM's decision to quit

The future of major school reforms face at the least being delayed after the department was plunged into turmoil when four ministers resigned earlier this week, resulting in three education secretaries in just two days.

As of Friday afternoon, the Department for Education had just four serving ministers. James Cleverly, appointed yesterday, replaced Michelle Donelan, the shortest-serving education secretary in history on Wednesday. She held the job for just 35 hours.

It was part of a mass resignation – a fall-out marking one of the most tumultuous weeks in political history, climaxing in the resignation of Boris Johnson.

It leaves the government’s landmark schools bill, already in tatters last week after a screeching U-turn over controversial academy powers, facing further uncertainty.

Cleverly signalled his commitment to the reforms in his first statement, saying there was a “huge amount of work to do and I am looking forward to getting on with the job”.

But a lack of junior ministers, coupled with the likelihood that Johnson’s successor will reshuffle the front bench again in just a few months, could set the reforms, as well as important proposals to fix a broken special educational needs system, back further.

Academies group ‘won’t engage’ on new policy

The turmoil has prompted a leading sector organisation to say it will not engage with the government on new schools policy until a successor to Johnson is in place.

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts said due to the “continued political uncertainty”, the organisation would “continue to engage with ministers on matters of education policy that are already in train”.

“We will not however engage on any new policy, except in exceptional circumstances, until there is stability in government and assurance of continuity.

“We believe this is an important distinction in this period of transition. There should be no new education policy until a new prime minister is in place and has had the opportunity to appoint a ministerial team.”

Speaking at the Festival of Education today, NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman warned it was “wrong” to continue with plans to amend and redraft the schools bill before a new government is formed.

“I think it’s tremendously difficult for solid amendments to be brought forward and redrafting to happen under the auspices of a caretaker government. I think it would be wrong to see it through at this stage.”

No ‘novel’ school policymaking, says Cleverly

Cleverly told Radio 4 this morning that the current government was “not going to do anything that would tie the hands of our successors, we are not going to do anything that would I think be novel, a big change from the currently set direction of travel”.

The turmoil comes at a critical time for education, with secondary school pupils due to receive results from the first set of public exams in three years next month, something Donelan alluded-to in her resignation letter.

It also comes amid increasing pressure on the government to address the cost-of-living crisis, with inflation continuing to rise and schools warning of the impact of increasing energy and food bills, both on their organisations and their staff.

A battle with unions looms, as the government prepares to finalise its plans for teacher pay in 2022-23. Its current offer would represent a real-terms cut for most teachers, with just a 3 per cent rise for those on the upper and leadership pay scales proposed.

Cleverly told Sky News he would be “analysing exactly all the decisions I need to take”.

Cleverly will look ‘seriously’ at teachers’ pay

On teachers’ pay, he said he recognised “how very important that is particularly in the time of inflation and of course I will be looking very seriously at that”.

He also told the BBC that he accepted leaders needed the ability to plan their budgets over the summer for the next academic year, but was otherwise non-committal.

Key stage 2 results this week showed the number of children reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths plunged to its lowest level since 2016.

New cabinet ministers were appointed on Wednesday to serve until Johnson’s successor is in place, but it is not clear when more junior vacancies will be filled.

As of Friday morning, Cleverly, Baroness Barran and Will Quince were the only serving DfE ministers, with the latter’s brief still not confirmed after he returned to the DfE on Thursday evening.

But the government announced on Friday afternoon that MP Brendan Clarke-Smith had also been appointed to the DfE ministerial team. It is not yet known which brief he will hold.

Robin Walker, the former schools minister, who resigned on Wednesday, told Schools Week that he would be willing to return to his DfE role now that Johnson had announced his plans to go.

Departing ministers are entitled to severance pay, usually equivalent to three months’ pay. This would be about £17,000 for an education secretary.

But Donelan said she would donate the money to charity should she receive it. But she would have been entitled to severance under her previous role as universities minister who attended cabinet.

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