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Michelle Donelan takes up Education Secretary role

Michelle Donelan during the Conservative Party Spring Forum (PA)
Michelle Donelan during the Conservative Party Spring Forum (PA)

Michelle Donelan has been confirmed as the new Education Secretary following a move by Nadhim Zahawi to Number 11 Downing Street after multiple resignations in the Cabinet.

Mr Zahawi becomes Chancellor after senior ministers Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid resigned from their positions amid Boris Johnson’s handling of the row over scandal-hit former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher.

Ms Donelan will have a full in-tray as she takes up the post.

2022 is the first year of full public exams following the cancellation of GCSEs and A-levels during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

Results released in August will be lower than those seen in 2021, when teacher-assessed grades were awarded, as grading will be set loosely at a midway point between 2019 and 2021.

In a year when the competition for university places has never been more fierce, the disappointment of youngsters who have also lost out heavily in the pandemic could be tricky to smooth over.

She will also oversee the passage of the Schools Bill – unfinished business – which Labour’s Bridget Phillipson recently described as having been “left in tatters” following the removal of 18 of its 69 clauses.

Most of these related to increased levels of centralised control over academies and had been fiercely contested in the Lords.

A third area of concern is likely to be the cost-of-living crisis and its impact on schools.

Only this week, school catering association Laca reported how more than half of caterers said that school meals quality would get worse if funding is not ring-fenced by Government, with rising costs pushing staples such as beef off the menus.

Heads have warned that rising costs, including gas and electricity prices, could push schools into deficit.

As higher and further education minister, Ms Donelan has championed the rights of students to be fully informed about their courses, pledging to crack down on “low quality” degrees through “boots on the ground” investigations.

She has called for universities to ensure that their drop-out and progression rates are clearly signposted in advertising, and has called for action on grade inflation, with both Universities UK and Guild HE announcing last week that they would be returning to pre-pandemic levels of first and upper second degrees by 2023.

Ms Donelan has introduced measures to help people study at any point in their lives, such as the lifelong loan entitlement, where individuals can access the equivalent of four years of post-18 education.

At times she has clashed with the higher education sector, most notably on the issue of free speech. She recently called on university vice-chancellors to “reflect carefully” over whether their membership of schemes such as Advance HE’s Race and Equality Charter was “conducive” to creating an environment for free speech within universities, which the sector pushed back on with a strongly-worded letter.

Ms Donelan has also spoken passionately on the subject of student safety on campuses, calling on all universities to sign a pledge to end the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment and assault.

And she broke with the National Union of Students, calling for their removal from all the Department for Education (DfE) departmental groups over long-standing concerns about antisemitism within the body.

Like her predecessor, she has had an inspiring journey into politics, the first in her family to attend university. The Chippenham MP, just 38, was educated in the state sector in Cheshire, and has said previously that her own background led her to champion better information about university courses for “first in family” students.

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