In the recent Cabinet re-shuffle, Damian Hinds was appointed Education Secretary or correctly, Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Education. Knowing the increasingly short time-span of such an appointment, one wonders whether he accepted this supremely important role with any foreboding. The demise of the previous incumbent, Justine Greening, was somewhat unexpected but far from a shock. It is supposed she fell because of the failed attempt to gain the re-introduction of some grammar schools, this being largely the result of the ‘wrong’ outcome of the snap General Election in the summer. It seems somewhat ironic that the previous Education Secretary should be held accountable for a policy that she allegedly did not favour (although ‘social mobility’ has been her key message) and more importantly, she has gone despite being the subject of increased trust; more and more people within Education were beginning to entertain hopes that she might just be getting to grips with the portfolio.
The press has made the inevitable comment along the lines that education continues to be a political football rather than a unilateral concern. However, this led to two lines of speculation: what are the real statistics about the longevity of Education Secretaries? And which of them will be remembered?
The history of the role is complex. It was 1839 when the Privy Council first made provision for funding in the educational field, with a Vice President appointed in 1857 who took responsibility from that point. All Secretaries of State can trace their antecedents from then but under different titles. The current manifestation of Principal Secretary of State was re-introduced in May 2010.
I began my journey in education 40 years ago with a PGCE. Therefore, using 1978 as a starting point, there have been 18 people with the portfolio. This roughly equates to a two-year life span; the time to do a GCSE or A Level. In other words, there is barely time to learn the brief, formulate new policy and implement it. However (and this is food for thought) some of the titleholders are well-known for having introduced major changes in educational direction.
Statistics being what they are, fallible, one must remember that during this time there has been 10 elections, 6 changes of Government (7 counting the 2010 coalition) and 7 Prime Ministers. Thus, at best there has only been twice the numbers of Secretaries of State there may have been given the likelihood of change at election time. We might say somewhat grudgingly therefore that there has been more stability than most might imagine.
Back in 1978, Shirley Williams was the incumbent and was to serve for almost 3 years. The longest serving was Sir Keith Joseph September 1981 – May 1986 under Margaret Thatcher. Of course, the latter is the only Education Secretary ever to make it to Prime Minister. Only David Blunkett for Labour and Michael Gove have lasted four years in the post. It may not surprise you to learn that exactly half of the occupants went to Oxford (9) and 3 went to Cambridge. Only one of the number had a tertiary qualification in education and this was not gained at a University.
Where does this information leave us? Always with the hope that the new Education Secretary has time to settle, understands the issues and talks to all those involved in the profession. Furthermore that they have the good fortune not to be outed by political circumstance before they have become effective. It is perhaps an unwanted brief and one currently that is overshadowed by others. It seems strange that perhaps the greatest Education Minister and the one that had perhaps the most profound effects on his era, R.A Butler, managed to have such a profound effect when the country was at war rather than at peace.
6 Secretaries of State for Education and Science 1975-92, 2 Secretaries of State for Education 1992-95, 2 Secretaries of State for Education and Employment 1995-2001, 4 Secretaries of State for Education and Skills 2001-2007, 1 Secretary of State for Children, School and Families (and Innovation, Universities and Skills) 2007-2010 and 4 Secretaries of State for Education 2010-present.