Mon, 15 July 2024

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Robin Walker: Giving up my dream job was a wrench but the right thing to do

4 min read

When I made my maiden speech with schools as its central theme, little could I have realised that 12 years later, I would be agonising over whether to resign from my dream job of schools minister.

Having spent six years of my career on the back benches and six in government, I never expected to be drafting a resignation letter at 5am on a Wednesday morning. I had stayed on at the Department for Exiting the European Union over two and half years, when successive teams of colleagues resigned, as I felt there was a vital job to do and, for all the controversies of Brexit, it was essential to deliver it in a way that could bring people together. At the Northern Ireland Office I never once had to consider my position, though there were many challenges along the way.

Last week, I already had one sleepless night, following a thoroughly enjoyable adjournment debate on medieval history, because my four-year-old came down with a fever and shouted the house down at 1am, waking our 10-month-old baby in the process. I had another one the following day, thinking about how and whether I could defend the position of the Prime Minister following the resignations of two of his strongest Cabinet ministers. I concluded that I could not.

I had just managed to clear my box when news broke about the resignation of Sajid Javid

I had just managed to clear my box when news broke about the resignation of Sajid Javid, shortly followed by Rishi Sunak. At around the same time, I learned that I would be taking an Estimates Day Debate on education, standing in for my then secretary of state. At first, this was a not unusual challenge of stepping up to take a policy debate on an issue on which I was well briefed, but it became clear to me that it would not be only that. When I read Sajid’s letter, I found there was nothing in it with which I could fundamentally disagree, and I felt I could not go out on the media or come to the House with arguments that would contradict it.

I loved working with schools, and the brief of the minister of state for school standards is a wide and very challenging one. I was fortunate to have a brilliant private office at the Department of Education and to be among a team of ministers which was respected amongst friends and colleagues.

The upcoming Schools Bill, already in the other place, had been given a rough ride on one or two issues, but the two key ones from my perspective – the National Funding Formula and the statutory register for children not in school – were widely supported across parties, by select committees and the sector. It had been a big challenge, but immensely worthwhile, to take on the National Tutoring Programme and learn from both its teething problems and its successes to tailor it for the next year so it could deliver for more schools and pupils. It was also a pleasure to focus on delivery of the so-called “golden thread” reforms to teacher Continuing Professional Development. Most of all I loved the school visits and the chance to learn from some of the brilliant people at the front line of teaching, leading, improving education and supporting children.

If asked a week before whether I would want to continue this work, then my answer would have been an unequivocal yes. However, it was clear to me, as I thought things through in the small hours of that Wednesday morning that I could not look colleagues, headteachers or, for that matter, pupils in the eye and tell them I supported the Prime Minister after the recent events and the way in which they were handled. I wish my successors at the Department for Education every success and look forward to working with them from the back benches.

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