Theresa May hasn’t had many opportunities to talk about domestic policy since the snap election. It’s probably fair to say, too, that the Prime Minister hasn’t exactly seized what opportunities there have been, either. This week, though, the Tories are talking about education, offering their response to Labour’s very attractive tuition fee pledge, and letting new Education Secretary Damian Hinds out to talk about his vision for the brief.
Hinds has made clear today that he’s the sort of Education Secretary that Theresa May often wished she had over the past year. Justine Greening lost her job because of her visible lack of enthusiasm for May’s grammar schools policy, while Hinds has used his first round of media interviews to talk about his support for expanding the selective schools. It shows that May at least got the person she wanted in one job in her reshuffle. But the detail of what Hinds is proposing tells us a great deal more.
While he has indeed used his first round of media interviews to talk about grammar schools, all Hinds is offering is a reiteration of the vastly diluted policy that the Conservatives ended up with after causing a tremendous row about new grammars. In his interview on Marr this morning, Hinds made clear that he would support existing grammar schools if they wanted to expand, rather than pushing for a radical structural overhaul of the education system. His most controversial policy, which will lead to the most tangible change, is to lift the cap on the proportion of pupils faith schools select according to their religions. This is also merely an unblocking of Greening’s opposition to May’s reforms, rather than an unveiling of a new agenda.
In a sense, this isn’t a bad thing. New ministers are often so keen to make a mark on their portfolios that they announce a Jackson Pollock-esque spray of new policies, without much heed to whether they will work or the impact of constant change on a sector. But the reason Hinds is merely saying he will go ahead with the policies Greening didn’t like is that there isn’t much else he can do. Talk to any Secretary of State at the moment and they will reel off a list of primary legislation that they want to introduce but cannot because of the near-impossible parliamentary arithmetic. Hinds may have removed the blockage caused by Greening, but he cannot enable May to have that exciting domestic agenda that many of her MPs have been demanding.