If you’ve had an eye on the news over the last couple of weeks you can’t have failed to notice the cabinet reshuffle that dominated the front pages. It is news in the children’s sector, too.
Building relationships with ministers is a part of the way the sector works. The in-trays of incoming ministers will be overflowing with welcoming overtures from countless organisations as well as queries about whether the minister in question will be honouring speaking engagements that his or her predecessor made.
Our own AGM late this autumn was due to feature two junior ministers who have both now departed. A new minister brings new priorities, different levels of expertise and interest – they will often have quite distinctive areas of professional expertise or personal interest and so these changes offer real, if distant, prospects of a shift in focus.
Ministers go about setting out their stall in a variety of ways. Colleagues here tell the story of being invited to a roundtable with a new minister not long after the formation of the coalition. The minister was keen to signal a new direction in the policy of issuing guidance to schools, which he wanted kept to a minimum. This included reducing guidance from a portfolio of documents (many developed by the people around the table) to just several pages of text. At intervals he would reach down under the table to produce hard copies of the original, individual guidance documents one-by-one until they were stacked up in a towering pile to illustrate his point.
Of course, government will also want to draw from the deep and often unique understanding of specialist issues that many sector organisations maintain. The Council for Disabled Children, hosted by NCB, is a partner to the Department for Education (DfE) and has been critical in ensuring the voice of the sector has featured in the SEN and disability reforms that the now former children’s minister Sarah Teather piloted through government and which her replacement Edward Timpson will now oversee.
These relationships enrich policy and practice and enhance the wider knowledge and understanding of ministers who may have had little real experience of these issues, but who are committed to making changes. Ministers who “listen”, who are committed to hearing a range of voices, are generally received more favourably than those who don’t.
The changes falling from this reshuffle at the DfE in particular have been considerable. The appointment of David Laws as schools minister has generally been welcomed. At NCB we knew David as a shadow education secretary during the Labour government and he was thought to understand that brief well. Ms Teather was widely liked, as was Tim Loughton. The Guardian was even moved to take notice of the groundswell of positive tweets and messages of support for the former children’s minister from across the children’s sector and beyond. Nick Gibb’s departure from the DfE is arguably as significant.
Of course, the whirlwind of press coverage of this reshuffle was only partially about the policy areas in which individuals would be working. It was also about a government at its mid-point, an opportunity for the media to analyse some much bigger picture politics and make a comment on the shape, direction and promise of a government which is no longer new. But below the headlines, some of these changes are significant. For young people, the decisions that ministers make from Whitehall can be vitally important. The engagement of the children’s sector with them is key. Ministers do matter.
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, which works in partnership with educational charities to improve the lives of children. Visit www.ncb.org.uk