Will Lucy Powell be a great shadow education secretary?

It’s too soon to say and she got off to a slightly shaky start, but three speeches in and the signs are that the government is not going to have it easy

Watching Lucy Powell give a speech three times is a bit like observing a teacher in their first few months. The first time I see her, at our own fringe event, she’s nervous. Bravado wins out over trembling, but she’s hesitant when she speaks and defers, albeit mildly, to others in the room. The second time, another fringe event, she’s more assured. By time three, she’s calm, confident, and gives off an air that suggests if you slouch she might tell you off for not paying attention.

Perhaps this is because she’s from a family of teachers. Something she says each time, along with her other key patter: she has three school-aged children (one secondary, one primary, one nursery); her dad is the only non-teacher (he was a social worker); she went to state school, and it’s the same ones her kids now attend.

Her political pitch is always the same too:

– Policy will gradually be decided by listening and debating over the coming years.

– In the meantime Labour need to take the Conservatives to task when things go wrong.

– She’ll be “pushing back” on teacher recruitment, cuts to early years and FE, and issues of local school oversight, particularly on place planning.

There’s a sense of excitement when she speaks, which is odd because what she’s saying isn’t that different to anything that Labour’s shadow education secretaries have said for the past five years. Yet, unlike last year, when Labour MPs would be booed for refusing to say academies would be returned to local management, when Powell patiently explains that she won’t be changing the structure of academies people see quiet calm. Either she has a gift for selling the unpalatable to party members or the more aggressive ones simply aren’t turning up anymore.

At each event she is asked a handful of random-seeming questions: What about over-examining children? Aren’t teachers dreadfully overloaded? Would you let summer-born children go to school whenever their parents want?

At this stage it’s rare for a new shadow education minister to have deep knowledge of the brief. Frankly, there are education ministers who have been in post some time who I don’t think could answer well. Powell’s knowledge is impressive, though. Avoiding platitudes she gives specific example about her own children, but also her constituency. At one point she talks about Finnish schools, correctly, (a rarity in political circles) and, on teacher recruitment, she talks about teachers as being “very mobile and very desirable employees” who will leave the sector if badly treated.

“The era when we could just do down the workforce because they haven’t got anywhere else to go is long gone,” she says, which is a far braver point than arguing that teachers have too much workload. And a more accurate one, too.

A thing I’ve learned since coming into journalism is that politicians who sound great in person don’t always translate on paper. Their intention gets lost when their words become ink. Not Powell. Her off-the-cuff answers are as punchy in prose as they are in person. For Labour, this is helpful. It makes her “quotable”. Journalists like politicians who speak in short snippets, dropping in a juicy fact or word, and who do so in less than 30 words. If she hones this skill it mean she’ll get asked her opinion a lot and will be able to oppose government policies in the press. Done well, she could win the respect of many teachers.

One further thing catches my eye. After one event I saw her in the street chatting with attendees when a young man, early 20s at most, approached her. She greeted him with absolute joy. From my kerbside view it seemed as if he’d worked with her on a campaign. Immediately engrossed she asked questions of him, listened, showed him off to those with her. She made him feel 10ft tall. There’s that teacher-blood in her again.

Will Lucy Powell make a great shadow education secretary? It’s far too early to tell. Certainly, she has the trappings of a person who could cause the government problems with her verve. The danger is always that an outspoken nature becomes pantomime, and schools become collateral damage in mud-slanging matches. What’s clear, however, is that she isn’t going to let the government away without hard questions. And that, at the very least, should be a joy to watch.


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