As the nation mourns the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and welcomes the new King, a new prime minister and education secretary also took up post this week.
While Liz Truss and Kit Malthouse, the fourth education secretary in just over two months, arrive to overflowing in-trays, that work will likely be put on hold during the period of mourning, with parliament suspended.
Schools have been told they are expected to open as normal during the period of mourning.
Truss had announced measures to give schools six months’ support to tackle rising energy bills earlier this week.
‘A daunting prospect’
Malthouse, a former Boris Johnson loyalist, was appointed over other contenders such as Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt and Edward Argar.
He is the fourth holder of the office in just over two months, the fifth in a year and the ninth since the Tories took charge in 2010.
“A daunting prospect and a singular honour,” the new minister tweeted after his appointment, prompting inevitable jokes about how long he would last in post.
By Thursday he had been there longer than Michelle Donelan, who resigned in July after just 35 hours.
The change of government comes at a critical time for education policy, with key schools, SEND and teacher training reforms all in motion.
No 10 education adviser out
But Truss shows no desire to maintain continuity.
Will Quince, the former children’s minister who took on the schools brief in July and who has stewarded the SEND review reforms since last autumn, was moved to health on day two of the reshuffle.
Rory Gribbell, an education policy adviser to Johnson since August 2020, was swiftly fired by team Truss as part of a massive clear-out of Downing Street staff.
Caroline Elsom, a special adviser at the Department for Work and Pensions, has been lined up to take on a wider “public services” brief, factoring in education, health and equalities.
But Sam Freedman, a former DfE adviser, warned “no one can cover a brief that big”.
School reforms under review
School reforms have also been delayed. Schools Week revealed yesterday that the schools bill, due to have its third reading in the House of Lords next Wednesday, is now on hold while the new line-up reviews all reforms.
The landmark legislation, which aims to establish a new accountability regime for schools, creates a new register of children not in school and greater powers for Ofsted, was already in trouble.
Earlier this year, ministers were forced to slash clauses one to four, which related to academy standards and intervention powers, and promised to come back with updated plans.
It followed widespread criticism of the proposals, with the Department for Education accused of an attempted “power grab”.
Grammars schools back on agenda
Truss may have different ideas for reforming the school system, having pledged new grammar schools.
The prospect of new selective schools has repeatedly reared its head, despite the ditching of former prime minister Theresa May’s pledge to remove the ban.
Evidence suggests while grammars may slightly stretch brighter pupils, they increase inequality overall as the attainment of other pupils suffers.
Truss previously told the Conservative Home website: “I want people around the country to have the choice that we have to be able to send our daughters to a grammar school.”
It was “about parents and children having the choice of that range of good schools. And the more good schools we have the more choice people have.”
Any government bid to open new grammar schools would require primary legislation to end the ban on new selective institutions introduced in 1998.
This presents more of an issue in the House of Lords, where the government does not hold a majority.
Sharp elbows needed
The significant churn in personnel also presents a challenge.
Will Bickford Smith, the DfE’s schools policy adviser, leaves this month for a job at the University of Exeter.
It means two of the main architects of teacher training reforms, Gribbell and Bickford Smith, are leaving at a critical time, with fears the ITT review will lead to a deficit of teacher training places, and gloomy predictions about recruitment over the next few years.
“[Kit Malthouse] is starting his role at a critical time,” said Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union.
“To put education back on an even keel will require sharp elbows in securing emergency funding from Treasury.
“But it will also require a willingness to listen to and work with the teaching profession, to achieve our shared goal of improving life-chances for all. Right now, the stakes could not be higher.”