Conor Ryan on what this week’s ministerial reshuffle means for social mobility
Reshuffles are a funny – and brutal – business. For Prime Ministers, they rarely go according to plan, and this week’s was no exception. I’ve been in both the education department and at no. 10 while they have been happening, and seen the drama at first hand. For individual ministers, they may be a personal success – or tragedy. But for the general public, who would be hard placed to name more than a handful of cabinet ministers, any impact is a lot less than those in the Westminster bubble imagine.
Yet they can also tell us a lot about the direction of government, and the choices of minister can make a big difference to how particular issues are treated. That’s as true for social mobility as for any other issue.
Justine Greening has been a doughty champion of social mobility as education secretary, reflecting her own journey to become the first Conservative education secretary to be educated at a comprehensive. Her social mobility plan allowed her finally to define the issue on her own terms – away from the noises off about grammar and faith schools that dominated the pre-election discourse – and it was generally well-received. To explain her refusal to accept a sideways move to welfare secretary, Greening cited her commitment to social mobility, believing that she could do more for the cause (particularly the role of education) from the backbenches.
Her successor, Damian Hinds, has no silver spoon in his mouth either, but is more representative of the grammar school educated politicians who have played a much more prominent role in Theresa May’s cabinets than those of David Cameron. Hinds championed social mobility as a chair of the APPG in the early 2010s and showed a keen interest in the issue as a member of the education select committee. He is unlikely to dismantle the emphasis that Greening had introduced to the department on social mobility, though some of his solutions may be different.
Those changes were part of a wider reshuffle which has tilted the composition of cabinet meetings a bit more privately and Oxbridge educated than before – though still a lot less than in Cameron’s day – and a bit away from the record achieved with May’s first cabinet as having the lowest proportion of privately educated members for a PM’s first cabinet since Clement Attlee in 1945.
But what of policies? In her social mobility plan, Greening set out a number of proposals which it would be surprising if they were not to continue – including the Future Talent Fund and the stronger focus on early literacy.
However, No 10 will also want to see a more robust advancement of the free school programme, as much laxity for new grammar schools as possible – the numbers attending existing grammars continue to rise – and more support for faith schools. The problem Hinds faces is that his room for manoeuvre on these issues is limited to the extent that new legislation is required – certainly the case for new grammars and abolishing Gove’s cap on faith admissions in new schools. He certainly needs to address the uneven performance of academy chains and revisit the rationale for free schools before applying the ‘rocket-boosters’ urged by some commentators.
But legislation is an overrated aspect of policymaking. A lot can be done by exhortation too. A second casualty of the reshuffle – perhaps less remarked than Greening’s – has been Jo Johnson, who was demoted to transport minister a day after gamely defending Toby Young’s appointment in the Commons. Some commentators see his move as connected to the Young business (and Young quit the next morning from his board membership at the Office for Students). But in reality it may have had more to do with Johnson’s reluctance to change the student funding model from that which had been introduced by David Willetts, beyond tinkering with interest rates and a very expensive raising of the repayment threshold.
And it is here that there may be more room for movement. The Sutton Trust has published a series of reports in recent months on higher education, with several important policy recommendations. There are three that could make a big difference: much greater use and transparency over contextual admissions; moving the sector towards post-qualification offers; and introducing means testing for fees as well as restoring maintenance grants. Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, should take a fresh look at higher education access and funding, and surely has some licence to do so.
A second area where the new education secretary should focus urgently is on apprenticeships – in addition to implementing the technical skills reforms. The apprenticeship levy – a brave policy for a Conservative government – is in danger of being squandered. As our major pre-Christmas report Better Apprenticeships showed, the quality of too many apprenticeships is poor; too few are taken young people; too many are accrediting existing skills; and progression for young people to apprenticeships that may be of some use is dismal. Done well, apprenticeships should be a route to social mobility for many; as they are now, they will be for too few.
And finally, Damian Hinds should look at what’s happening in the early years. A lot of headlines focus on the closure of Sure Start children’s centres – and that’s worrying – but the bigger issue is the quality of experience for disadvantaged toddlers in early education across all settings. They need the very best, but if the cash is spread too thin – as our recent report showed – the poorer kids will continue to start school at a distinct disadvantage and things will go downhill from there.
Damian Hinds may have had a few reporters searching urgently for his Wikipedia profile. But if he takes the bold steps needed in higher education, apprenticeships and early years, he has a chance not only to make his name; he can also make a big difference to social mobility.
This blog was also featured in Public Finance.