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
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.”
Besides, if it’s scorching hot sun and whispered conversations about backstabbing you’re after, the real action this summer is right here in SW1. But while his party dukes it out over the finer points of Brexit, Hinds – who has now been at the DfE for seven months – is getting well and truly stuck into what he describes as a dream gig. “On the night I was selected as a parliamentary candidate I was asked, if I got elected and things went well for me, what might I like to do. I said: ‘I’d like to be a minister in the Department for Education’. So I can honestly say of all the jobs in all the world this is the one that I always wanted to do – and it’s a huge privilege to do it.”
Hinds, who’s been a Tory MP since 2010 and served in a string of ministerial posts, was elevated to the Cabinet at the start of the year after his predecessor Justine Greening refused to be shuffled off to the Department for Work and Pensions. Like Greening, Hinds has long championed social mobility, once chairing the parliamentary group on that subject. But unlike his predecessor, the new man at Great Smith Street has already thrown some red meat to the Tory backbenches, pressing ahead with a £240m expansion of existing grammar schools.
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.”
While the boost for grammars will no doubt please some Conservative backbenchers, a Whitehall source pushes back hard at the suggestion this is the driving force of Hinds’ time at the DfE so far – pointing out that a similar-sized £50m-a-year pledge to create hundreds of new places for children with special education needs got far less press pickup.
The Education Secretary is also clear that the cash boost for selective schools comes with strings attached, with institutions asked to set out steps to ensure “more children from lower income backgrounds can benefit from that type of 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.
While he says it “wouldn’t be right for me, or for us in the DfE, to set out a blueprint for what that should be”, the Education Secretary is clear that he wants to see the proportion of grammar pupils from low income backgrounds rise as a result of the new programme.
While grammars have grabbed the headlines in recent months, there’s a longer-running issue in Hinds’ in-tray that could well come to define his time at the DfE. One Tory MP tells us the new Education Secretary now has “a massive challenge on his hands” to fight for more school funding, following an election campaign that saw teachers write directly to parents to highlight the squeeze on their own budgets. But that’s a battle that will undoubtedly be made much harder by the government’s recent decision to boost NHS spending by £20bn-a-year. “Everything coming from the Treasury is that there’s going to be no more money for other departments,” the MP warns.
Hinds is relaxed about teachers writing to parents about the pressures they face, describing himself as a “democrat” who believes “in a participatory democracy”. But the Education Secretary points out that school funding is now “considerably higher” than it was “a generation ago”, with £1.3bn shifted from capital spending to the frontline by Greening after the election in a bid to ease the strain on schools. There’s also a huge shake-up of the National Schools Funding formula underway in a bid to distribute more fairly the cash handed to schools. “The extra £1.3bn means that per pupil real-terms funding is held constant over this year and next year,” he says. “And that is, of course, at a time when pupil numbers are rising, which is an important point – when you talk about protecting per pupil funding, that’s obviously a very different proposition than at a time when pupil numbers are falling – which does happen periodically.”
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 says a longer-term funding plan for schools – as floated by MPs on the cross-party Education Committee – would be “helpful”, and hints that he’ll be fighting the DfE’s corner at the upcoming spending review. “We’ll still have fiscal constraint as we have had,” he says. “It’s also true that we all want to do more. And you know, I’m ambitious, of course, for our education system and to make sure that every child is able to make absolutely the best of their potential.”
However, Hinds studiously avoids getting into a bidding war with the NHS, saying both schools and the health service are “rightly” top priorities for voters. “It’s one of the reasons why they were the two domestic protected budgets. Even after the crash in 2008, and the change of government in 2010 and all the very difficult things that had to be done, the schools budget and the health service were protected.”
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.
“I’ve often said this is a people business. And when you ask people to remember back to their own school days and what it was that made a difference for them, nobody ever mentions a textbook or a computer or a smartboard – don’t get me wrong all those things are important – but what stands out is always a person they remember.
“Everything we do in the Department for Education has to be about making sure we’re there with that person, supporting them. Part of that is about career development, and part of it is about workload, which is a longstanding issue in the profession. It’s not a new thing – but we need to work harder on it.”
As well as the sabbaticals fund, Hinds has earned plaudits from headteachers for a string of changes to the increasingly centralised and data-driven accountability system the DfE has introduced in recent decades to ensure schools are up to scratch. Perhaps most significantly, he has ditched a requirement that underperforming local authority schools must convert to academies through direct intervention by the Department for Education.
The changes mean that only schools deemed to be failing by inspector Ofsted will have to make the change, and the Department has instead promised to support headteachers in schools above that threshold who appear to be in trouble. While Hinds is clear that he’s still a believer in the academies programme, he is adamant that it should be a positive choice for schools to convert, rather than something mandated from on high. “We will talk with the sector about how best to do this,” he says.
“An Ofsted inadequate judgement will still trigger conversion to an academy – but for schools above that, we’ve got to think about how we work together, how we can support them, how we can offer extra help.”
The Education Secretary is less conciliatory, however, when it comes to recent allegations that some schools are deliberately “off-rolling” problem pupils – effectively excluding them by the backdoor – in a bid to inflate their league table scores. Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman has warned that some schools appear to be “gaming the system”, with 19,000 pupils removed from school rolls just before taking their GCSEs last year - and around half of those dropping off the education system’s radar completely.
“To be clear, you can only exclude a child from school for behavioural reasons, not for other reasons,” Hinds says. He has asked ex-minister Edward Timpson to lead a review into exclusions, and while the Education Secretary is keen not to pre-empt the findings of that probe, he’s clearly taking nothing off the table if schools are found to be abusing the system. “I don’t want to prejudge something and talk hypothetically about if the result is X, then Y. But I also don’t rule anything out. I take this seriously. I want to make sure that individual schools can learn from each other, individual areas can learn from each other. But in terms of taking action – I don’t rule out what we might do in future.”
He admits that raising his own kids while tackling such a hefty brief leaves him with very little time for much else (least of all bingeing on Love Island). But when the family’s away, this self-declared “Britpop-era kid” tells The House he still likes to crank up the music to 11.
Those hoping the Education Secretary will settle the age-old Blur v Oasis (or even Suede v Pulp) debate may be disappointed by his classic politician’s answer that they are “all great bands”. But he quickly bolsters his indie credentials by backing up the claim, and saying he likes each band for “different reasons”. “This is the great thing about the Britpop era,” he smiles. “The album that we’ll all remember the most is [Pulp’s] Different Class. Then technically the best album – but who am I to be talking about these things by the way? – would be [Blur’s] Parklife. But the best one for a Saturday morning when you need to get ready to leave the house is [Oasis’s] Definitely Maybe.”
The Education Secretary is blessed with an affable, easy-going manner, joking his way through the photo shoot and even stopping the interview to make sure your correspondent is only partially blinded by the beam of summer sun shooting through the window of his sweltering Parliamentary office.
Hinds’ obvious enthusiasm for the brief and ability to speak like a bona fide human being may also explain why he’s been tipped for the top job by figures including Michael Gove and Theresa May’s former adviser Number 10 Nick Timothy – but the Education Secretary is adamant he’s not interested. Instead, he insists he “would love nothing more than to be able to do this job for as long as I can”.
“Every human being should be able to fulfil their potential, but also have the opportunity to have as fulfilled a life as possible,” he says. “I think about all that education – in its broadest sense – can open up. It can do amazing things in the world.”