A new dawn for parliamentary scrutiny of education policy?

The Commons Education Committee has a new chair. Why should we care?

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Former Schools Minister (and former DfE Principal Private Secretary) Robin Walker will take on the chairmanship of the Commons Education committee, following his victory in today’s election.

He got 217 votes in the first stage, easily winning at stage two.

He’s also served on the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy committee (covering stuff like apprenticeships), and has campaigned on education funding issues – including in his maiden speech.

Because of the way committees have worked since 2010, it was always going to be an all-Conservative pool of candidates. I know that MPs of all stripes are broadly happy with Walker as a personable, reasonable, and thoughtful chair (though the “anyone but Jonathan Gullis” effect may have been in play here).

Previous chair Robert Halfon was well known to higher education wonks – he did some useful work, but in latter years he became sidetracked into his twin obsessions of apprenticeships and the culture wars. It’s not easy to be a committee chair, and the fact that he did it as well as he did for most of his long six year tenure is worthy of respect.

Commons committees

In some ways Commons committees have very little power – they can’t make or amend government policy or legislation – but in other ways the committee plays a uniquely important role. It gets to hold hearings with key ministerial appointments (like the Chair of the Office for Students), hold ministers and civil servants to account on issues of the day, and to run inquiries on larger matters of national importance within education – bringing external voices into parliament in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere.

Committee reports are well respected – a sizable proportion of committee recommendations become government policy, precisely because of the cross-party, evidence-informed, way in which they are generated. The MPs involved have a range of interests within the topic, and are ably supported by a superb secretariat drawn from parliamentary staff.

What’s an education committee for?

For most MPs, and thus the committee, schools are the primary focus when education is considered. Second would probably come the whole notion of “skills”.

Universities hold a bit of a confusing position in that they are generally welcomed for their contribution to “skills” generally and for their contribution to regional and national economies and society. However, all of these positives are technically the purview of other departments and thus other committees – at education (as we have seen under Robert Halfon’s chairmanship) the traction is on “culture wars” headlines, fees, and any amount of “unfairness” however defined.

Walker takes on the chairmanship with space in the calendar for maybe one or two more inquiries this year – plus ongoing work on careers and level 3 qualifications, plus the usual accountability hearings.

One of these will clearly schools funding, given current well-founded concerns in this area, but were I to choose another I would plump either for post-legislative (section 40) scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Act, or – more generally – regulation, quality, and standards in English higher education. This is worthy rather than headline-chasing work, but there is a real appetite for a proper look at these issues both in parliament and around the sector.

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