Teach First graduate and Conservative Teachers founder to be new schools policy adviser

A Teach First graduate who founded the Conservative Teachers group is set to become Nick Gibb’s new schools adviser.

Schools Week understands that Will Bickford Smith will take up the role of schools policy adviser with Rory Gribbell leaving to become head of education at the No 10 policy unit.

Like Gribbell, Bickford Smith is a Teach First graduate, completing his two years with the programme at Hatch End High School, in Harrow. Bickford Smith then taught government and politics for two years up to August 2016 at Wellington College, before leaving the profession for a short stint as a management consultant.

He joined the Department for Education as a policy adviser on T levels in 2017, and most recently led on overseeing the well-received teacher recruitment and retention strategy.

Bickford Smith was also vice-chairman of the Conservative Education Society up until 2017 and had previously set up the Conservative Teachers group in 2015, saying it was a “call to arms for all those who have felt voiceless for too long”.

He wrote in a 2015 blog post: “For decades, those on the Left have acted like they have had a monopoly on the teaching profession with uncompromising individuals berating those who might even dare to suggest that supporters of the Conservative Party might in fact care about the plight of our school children.”

In the same piece, for the Conservatives for Liberty website, he said the profession needed to “acknowledge two truths, which may be uncomfortable for some to swallow”.

They were that difficulties in schools often stem from the actions of “misguided school leaders with good intentions, not the Government or Ofsted”.

“Despite these truths, the teaching unions and teaching establishment, who ought to be our constant support crutch, drip-feed a plethora of negativity so incessant that it is virtually impossible for even the most optimistic of teachers not to be worn down and demoralised by it,” he wrote.

Bickford Smith added the “one-sided moaning and groaning regarding Conservative policy” was “wrong and must be challenged”, claiming “hypocrisy” that heads criticising the expansion of the academies programme were doing so whilst “lining their own newly converted academy’s coffers with generous grants from local businesses”.

Writing more recently for Conservative Home in 2017, Bickford Smith called for plans to “get fresh leadership into schools to tackle educational underperformance, build a world-leading vocational and technical education pathway, and improve careers advice in schools and colleges”.

The Department for Education would not say whether the schools policy adviser role was advertised.

They instead provided a statement saying that any suggestion that recruits have not been appointed “fully in line with civil service recruitment guidelines is misleading”.

They added there are a “range of routes” available to government when recruiting people, with civil servants bound by the civil service code meaning they “carry out their duties in a way that is politically impartial”.

Gribbell has held the role for the past few years after joining the department in 2016 as a Teacher in Residence – where serving teachers are employed as civil servants for up to 12 months. The role consists of writing ministerial speeches for Gibb and advising him on policy.

At the time, then shadow education secretary Angela Rayner called for an investigation into the appointment, saying it was an “absolute abuse of public money”.

Rayner pointed out that Gribbell and his predecessor Robert Peal had both trained with Teach First, had relatively little teaching experience and had links to the Conservative party.

Gribbell is expected to replace Elena Nazoranksi, a former adviser for Michael Gove, at no 10.

The Downing Street policy unit is headed by Munira Mirza, former deputy mayor for education and culture while Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, and an ex-trustee at the New Schools Network.

She is also a member of the advisory council of lobbying group Parents and Teachers for Excellence.

Clarification: We have amended how we described Bickford Smith’s time at Hatch End school. Rather than saying he was ‘placed’ there by Teach First, we said he completed his two years with the programme at the school.