To become education secretary, you should be privately educated, child-free and summer-born

If you want to be an education secretary you should be privately educated, have no children, and have a July or August birthday, writes Laura McInerney, whose presentation at SSAT gave an insight into what school leaders can learn from politicians.

Politicians are forever visiting schools to “learn” from them, but how often do school leaders look at the work of education secretaries to learn from them? After all, no one has greater power over the £30 billion spent each year on schooling in the UK.

Back in the summer of 2013 I set out to read the biographies, autobiographies, Who’s Who entries and all other materials I could get my hands on of former education secretaries.

Creating a database as I went (including parents’ education and left or right handedness) a number of things began to emerge in terms of similarity.

The most common number of children for an education secretary is, surprisingly, none

First, education secretaries have almost always attended a form of selective school. Even David Blunkett, whose state school didn’t select by intellectual ability, nevertheless went to a school for the blind. It was not a grammar school, but it wasn’t comprehensive either.

Second, the most common number of children for an education secretary is, surprisingly, none. In some ways, it makes life easier. If Justine Greening was attempting to bring back grammar schools while putting children through school, the scrutiny on the places they attended would be a distraction.

Third, a large number of former education secretaries were born in July or August. Summer-born children have far lower exam results, on average, than those born in autumn, and so it has long been expected that politicians will be born earlier in the academic year. (On the presumption that one must be vaguely smart to be a politician).


Laura McInerney speaking at the Birmingham conference
Laura McInerney speaking at the Birmingham conference

Looking at the secretaries born in August, such as Michael Gove, gives away a clue, however. Gove was educated in Scotland, where the academic year starts earlier.

Born in the last week of August, he would nevertheless have been one of the eldest in his year.

Given most school leaders cannot easily change these characteristics – is there anything more tangible they can learn?

Yes, there is.

A few things seem to separate the best education secretaries from others. First, they stay in post for at least three-and-a-half years. This seems to be the golden timeline for being remembered well. Second, they really want the job when they took it. Those who were a bit vague about why they took it tend to have wimped out early. Estelle Morris has said that she wished she’d known her purpose going into the job – even if it had just been written on one piece of paper – as that would have made her more effective.

Finally, it is very important to want the power the job brings, more so than actually achieving outcomes.

Where politicians are focused on actually getting what they want, the job is too stressful. Where they focus on trying to get what they want – as in, the process is what matters to them less so the outcome – they seem to be more successful. Obliquity wins out, it seems.


Laura McInerney is editor of Schools Week

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  1. I’m not sure what counts as success for an Education Secretary.
    Most of those that initiated changes have had their changes reversed by a later Education Secretary.
    Can anyone name an education secretary that all would agree brought in a successful change that has lasted?
    On balance I think we might have had a better education system if we had abolished the role of Education Secretary altogether.

    • A rose by any other name is still a rose. A Comprehensive can be whatever you decide it is.
      The government is proposing to have more Grammar Schools but no more Secondary Moderns. We have Comprehensives with a National Curriculum but the government introduced Academies which do not have to deliver the National Curriculum. We have MATs which can select which school they take over to adopt the beliefs of their founders. We have Free Schools which are not Comprehensives. We have “Faith School Comprehensives” where they can select their intake and the government is proposing that they can select more of their intake.
      I would suggest that all these changes to school structure are reversing the policy of a national Comprehensive School system.