Damian Hinds: “Education can do amazing things in the world”

Damian Hinds describes being Education Secretary as his dream job. But with schools taking matters into their own hands to highlight their under-pressure budgets, and fears of a teacher retention crisis, his department faces some huge challenges. He speaks to Matt Foster in Politics Home magazine The House

Damian Hinds admits to being just a little “surprised” when one of his department’s high-flying young civil servants turned up on Love Island, the raunchy reality TV hit of the summer. A far cry from the bowler hats and umbrellas of Whitehall caricature, 21-year-old Zara McDermott certainly raised a few eyebrows around Westminster when she took a career break to join the show – apparently without telling bosses at the Department for Education. But the Education Secretary himself is steering well clear of the row – and he won’t even try and pretend he’s into the show to win over the youth vote. “I’ve never watched Love Island,” he chuckles. “I feel bad saying that. I realise that’s not a very 2018 thing to say, but there you go.” 

While it’s a far cry from the now-dead Tory manifesto pledge to lift the ban on setting up new selective schools, one member of the Education Select Committee tells The House they were surprised to see Hinds make grammars “one of the DfE’s top priorities” so soon in his tenure. Selective schools, they argue, have a pretty patchy record on social mobility, with fewer than 3% of grammar school pupils eligible for free school meals. “If you have £240m to play with you could provide 12 weeks of maybe five-a-day-a-week tuition to some of our most disadvantaged young people to get them on the ladder of opportunity,” the MP says.

But Hinds is keen to stress that grammars remain just “one part of a wide and diverse schools system”, with the cash representing “a pretty small part” of the DfE’s vast £1bn budget for school place expansion. “The vast, vast majority of secondary schools are not selective entry,” he says. “They are comprehensive intake schools. But there are a number of selective schools like grammar schools. And at a time when we’ve been expanding the number of school places really significantly because of demographic changes, it hasn’t been possible in the same way to expand a grammar school. And in lots of parts of the country we have a need to create more places so more kids can go to good schools and get a quality education.”

Hinds says he expects grammars to spell out how they will work with a more diverse range of primary schools, overhaul their admissions criteria, and do much more to reach out to parents in exchange for the money.

Unions, however, warn that under-pressure schools are already being clobbered with extra costs, including soaring national insurance and pension payments as well as the Department for Education’s own apprenticeship levy. Hinds says he also “totally” accepts that schools are being asked to do more than ever before. “You know, they want to do as well as they can for every child,” he says. “We want to be ambitious for every child. And so – yes, although there is more money than, 10, 20 years ago, it still is tight.”

He’s also staying firmly tight-lipped on any plans to boost teachers’ pay packets following the lifting of the 1% cap on public sector rises in the wake of the election. Unions are angling for a 5% boost after years of below-inflation rises, and say that should be fully-funded by new money from Philip Hammond’s Treasury. With the School Teachers’ Review Body – which advises the DfE on pay levels – still weeks away from reporting, Hinds is clearly not about to pre-empt its findings just to hand The House a scoop. Asked whether he’d press the Treasury for more cash if the review body came back with a 5% call, the Education Secretary opts to keep schtum: “I can’t go into this. There’s a process that we go through every year and we will follow that process as we have in the past.”

While he may not yet be able to reward teachers with more money in their pockets, Hinds has already struck a markedly different tone from some former education ministers about the work that that they do. His predecessor-but-two at the DfE, Michael Gove, famously went to war with an educational establishment he pilloried as ‘The Blob’. But Hinds has already pledged a £5m fund to allow teachers with a decade of experience to take a year-long sabbatical, giving them the chance to take a break from the frontline to study, gain new work experience – or even join the DfE. Amid warnings of a recruitment and retention crisis in the profession, was this announcement a recognition by Hinds that teachers are now feeling the pressure?

“I think teachers do face pressures,” he says. “It’s also a very rewarding job. It can be incredibly fulfilling. But the hours are long – a lot longer than a lot of people realise. And yeah, it also can be a pressurised job. I think what they do is amazing. Not many people in the world can do it, to stand up in front of a classroom of children, day after day, hour after hour being on form and inspiring those kids to learn.

Read about his views on Love Island, ‘off-rolling’, pay, sabbaticals and academies in the full interview Damian Hinds: “Education can do amazing things in the world”

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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