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The Impact of the Secretaries of State for Education - Part 2

Conservative Secretaries of State and their Impact  

In Part One of this blog, we explored some landmark policies, acts and themes which have shaped the education sector in England. Now that some of the significant Education Acts have been addressed, here we delve into the legacy of each of the following Secretaries of State for Education.   

The Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition 2010–2015 

Micheal Gove: May 2010- July 2014 

By far the longest serving SOS for Education in the last 12 years. The Importance of Teaching :The  Schools White Paper (2010) along with the Academies Act  (2010) and The Education Act (2011) were instrumental in facilitating the increase of academisation and the development of free schools.  

‘The Importance of Teaching’  formally established the notion of a ‘self-improving school-led’ system in policy (Cruddas, 2018). This policy shift focused on school autonomy, increasing choice for parents and the reduction of the LEA (Shaked and Schechter, 2019). It also heralded the government taking a backseat in teacher recruitment (McIntyre et al., 2019), with the likes of Teach First and programmes such as Schools Direct coming on the scene.  

Conservative Government 2015-  

Nicky Morgan July 2014 – July 2016   

The appointment of eight Regional Schools Commissioners in the September of 2014 sought to oversee the growing numbers of academies (Durbin et al., 2015). However, the DfE announced their introduction a year earlier, whilst Michaell Gove was at the helm. Their role was expanded in the Education and Adoption Act (2016) to facilitate the academisation of under-performing LEA maintained schools. The creation of the Regional Schools Commissioners can be seen as another devolution of power to more regional actors.     

The Children and Families Act (2014), covered a multitude of things from adoption to family courts to children and young people with special educational needs (SEN).  With regards to pupils with SEN, councils were responsible for identifying which pupils have a disability. It called for increased multi-agency work between education, health and social care to provide better support through what was called the ‘Local Offer’.  

The Act introduced the  ‘Education, health and care plan’, commonly referred to as the EHCP, which was to replace the ‘Statement’. The EHCP was designed to facilitate greater multi-disciplinary teamwork around children. Included in the Act were changes to the role of the Children’s Commissioner for England; the Commissioner was to champion children’s rights during the legislative process, could now speak to children in care homes and was required to publish an annual report.   

The White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere was published in the March of 2016. Its goals included forcing all schools to academise by 2022, however this aim was scrapped by the October of that year. The paper sought to increase sector autonomy. ‘Evidence informed’ practice was an underpinning idea of the reforms and practice, and it also introduced the National Professional Qualifications to support leadership. 

In January 2015 the Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0 to 25 years was published. Whist this was under Nicky Morgan’s tenure, she doesn’t feature in the forward. This formalised the role of SENCO and meant that every school must have one, who was required to a undertake the National Award in Special Educational Needs Coordination.  

Nicky Morgan also introduced the  ‘Progress 8’ accountability measure to track pupil progress from Key Stage 2 to 3.  

Justine Greening : July 2016 - January 2018 

Justine Greening was appointed by Theresa May. Greening quickly got to work publishing the Schools That Work For Everyone consultation document paper, calling for - 

  • Independent schools to increase their offer of funded places to children who could not afford the fees  
  • Asking universities to sponsor or establish more schools 
  • Allowing the expansion of selective schools 
  • Allowing faith schools to change their admissions policies to select 100% of their pupils based on faith.  

The results of the consultation were published in the May of 2018, four months after Greening had left her position. Interestingly, the term ‘everyone’ in this instance does not include pupils with special educational needs, as there is no reference to this in the government response to the consultation.  

Greening also sought to tackle issues around social mobility. There were the identification of 6 areas in England which were to receive £60 million in extra funding, reformed school funding formulas were introduced to address disparities among schools and laid the foundations for “T Levels”. However, the ‘T Levels’ were to be introduced some two Secretaries of State later in 2020.  

Damian Hinds:  January 2018 - July 2019  

Hinds announced he wanted to introduce ‘character and resilience’ into schooling, stating, “This is not about a DfE plan for building character. It has to be about schools learning from other schools.” The DfE published  Character Education Framework Guidance some four months after he had left the post. He also introduced First Aid and CPR courses for pupils.  

Sir Gavin Williamson July 2019 - September 2021 

In October 2019, Williamson announced an up lift in pupil spending for the 2021-22 academic year, a minimum of £5000 for every secondary pupil and £4000 for each primary pupil.   

It could be said Williamson’s handling of school closures during the pandemic was a little chaotic, and there will be many in the profession who remember schools closing with very late notice at the start of the academic year in 2020. Williamson also received criticism for the lack of measures to protect children and staff from the virus, published in an open letter in the British Medical Journal. During the pandemic when exams were cancelled, Williamson became entangled in a debacle involving an algorithm for assigning A-Level results. He ultimately had to 'U Turn' his decision and allow the use of teacher- graded assessments. 

Williamson brought forward the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which became an Act in May 2023, which sought to protect academic freedoms of speech on university campuses and offer support to students, academics and visitors who have controversial opinions.  

Nadhim Zahawi September 2021- July 2022 

In the March of 2022, Zahawi published the first Department for Education white paper in 6 years, “Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child.”  Within the paper were very ambitious targets; by 2030 90% of pupils leaving primary school would be working at the expected level in reading, writing and Maths, whilst the average attainment for English language and maths at secondary would rise from 4.5 to 5. To support these aims new NPQs for Leading Literacy and Early Years Leadership would be introduced. The starting salary of teachers was to increase to £30,000. The paper also set out the aim of all schools to be part of a trust by 2030.  

The white paper also set out to lengthen the school day and create an ‘arms-length curriculum body’ to provide digital teaching and learning resources- Oak National Academy Schools would be encouraged to be more accountable through a ‘Parent Pledge’, where parents would be informed of the support given to children who had fallen behind their age-related expectation in English and Maths.   

The white paper was to go hand- in-hand with the SEND Review: Right Support Right Place Right Time  and following SEND and AP Improvement Plan (March 2023). The SEND Review identified a number of challenges faced in the provision of special educational needs. It reported that outcomes and provision was inconsistent across the country, navigating SEND and AP could be difficult for parents and that provision was not cost effective. The Improvement Plan sought to address these challenges by strengthening accountability measures through the yet to be implemented ‘National Standards’, the development of a new SENCO NPQ and the development of a new local and national inclusion dashboard.  

Michelle Donelan 5th July – 7th  July 2022 

Serving as Secretary of State for Education for a grand total of 36 hours, Donelan has the dubious honour of being the shortest serving cabinet member in British history.  Congratulations Michelle. 

James Cleverly 7th July – 25th October 2022  

James Cleverly was the third Secretary of State for education in one week. In terms of lasting impact, it’s difficult to assess what Cleverly did. However, he did make a speech regarding investment into the school estate through the Schools Rebuilding Program, with the government committing £1.8 billion in the financial year 2022 to 2023.  

Kit Malthouse 6th September – 25th October 2022 

Speaking at the Tory Party conference, Malthouse stated the government wanted to be more “assertive towards intervention and standards”, calling for  “excellence in the basics of attendance , reading writing maths”. Malthouse’s suggestions  that some schools were “hanging on to mediocrity” and that the education sector needed “constant attention and constant pressure”, were not particularly well received, as we can see in this letter from ASCL leaders 

Gillian Keegan 25th October 2022 – to present  

Under Keegan the SEND and AP improvement plan was published, as discussed above. However, many of the reforms will not come into effect until 2025, so the true impact is difficult to assess at this stage.  

It was under Keegan’s time in office that a spate of teacher strikes occurred, which the government eventually succumbed to with a 6.5% pay rise for teachers.    

Gillian Keegan may be remembered for her interesting use of language after an interview on the topic of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC). The start of the academic year 2023/24 was postponed for some schools due to changes in DfE guidance regarding the RAAC and that it was dangerous in a number of settings. The state of the school buildings had been reported on by the National Audit Office in June  (2023, p.6) which stated, “In recent years, funding for school buildings has not matched the amount DfE estimates it needs, contributing to the estate’s deterioration,” although this was disputed by government.  

Clearly, some Secretaries of State for Education have had a greater lasting impact than others but the themes of autonomy, evidence driven practice and‘ accountability have lasted and look like they are here to stay. At the time of writing (January 2024) Gillian Keegan has survived a cabinet reshuffle, which suggests that, with a general election this year, she may be the SOS until at least then. This piece does not have the space or remit to speculate on the potential reforms a Labour government would introduce. But  a General Election looming, who knows who the next Secretary of State for Education will be, or what measures and reforms they will seek to introduce.      





Cruddas, L. (2018) Where next for the self-improving school system? Getting system Governance Right . CST 

Durbin, B. Wespieser, K., Bernardinelli, D. and Gee, G. (2015). A Guide to Regional Schools Commissioners. Slough: NFER 

Greany, T. (2022) Place-based governance and leadership in decentralised school systems: evidence from England. Journal of Education Policy [Online], v.37(2), pp.247-268. 

Hughes, B. C., (2020) Investigating the realist networks of the Chief Executive Officer of a multi-academy trust. Educational Review, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2020.1721436 

Male, T. (2019)  ‘Towards school autonomy in England: A troubled and far from complete journey’ in D.Pasch and C.Wiesner (eds) School autonomy - Perspectives in Europe. Münster: Waxmann Verlag, pp.241-253. 

McIntyre, J., Youens, B. and Stevenson, H. (2019) Silenced voices: the disappearance of the university and the student teacher in teacher education policy discourse in England. Research Papers in Education, v.34(2), pp. 153-168. 

National Audit Office Report, Condition of school buildings (2023) , Session 2022-23, [online]  
Available at : Condition of school buildings ( 

 Shaked, H. and  Schechter, C.  (2019) School Middle Leaders’ Sense Making of a Generally Outlined Education Reform. Leadership and Policy in Schools [Online], v. 18(3), pp.412-432. 
Available at:  

Thompson, G., Lingard, B. and Ball, S. J. (2021) ‘Indentured autonomy’: headteachers and academisation policy in Northern England, Journal of Educational Administration and History [Online], v.53(3-4), pp. 215-232. 
Available at : 

Whitty, G. and Wisby, E. (2016) Education in England – a testbed for network governance? Oxford Review of Education [Online], v.42(3), pp.316-329.
Available at:  

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