Opposition parties and education unions have accused ministers of chairing a “carousel of education secretaries” after Kit Malthouse became the fifth person to hold the job in less than a year.
Malthouse, the former Cabinet Secretary, was appointed by Liz Truss on Tuesday to succeed James Cleverly, who had only been in office for two months and who was transferred to Secretary of State.
The rapid turnover began on September 15 last year when Gavin Williamson was fired as education secretary as part of a reshuffle by Boris Johnson.
Williamson was replaced by Nadhim Zahawi, but Zahawi was appointed to become chancellor on July 5 after Rishi Sunak stepped down, beginning an exodus of ministers intended to force scandal-shocked Johnson to resign.
Zahawi was replaced by his university minister, Michelle Donelan, who was on the job for just 48 hours before resigning. Cleverly, who had been Secretary of State, took charge for two months.
The period represents a particularly turbulent time for the education sector, including the unprecedented disruption to schools, nurseries and higher education caused by Covid, and often serious funding and staffing difficulties.
Although Williamson had been education secretary for just over two years when he was fired, he is one of nine Conservative MPs to have taken the job in the past eight years, a streak that began with Michael Gove, who left the role in July 2014.
Even counting Gove’s four-year run, since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, education secretaries have lasted fractionally more than 16 months on average. Education has been transferred, so almost all their role is connected only with England.
“This is a conservative government in disarray and our children are paying the price,” said Bridget Phillipson, Labor minister for shadow education. “We now have the fifth education secretary in just a year, but the previous four have left us with a growing learning disadvantage, childcare crippling family finances and failed skills policies, leaving us with fewer opportunities later in life.”
Munira Wilson, the education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said: “This indifferent conservative carousel of education secretaries can no longer be trusted with the future of our young people. As the fifth Secretary of State for Education in a year, and someone who has not shown much passion for the subject, this position is clearly just a stepping stone for Kit Malthouse.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Education is far too important to be subjected to such damaging levels of instability. I hope that in Mr Malthouse we will now have the clarity of a long-term Secretary of State who can outline a clear plan that addresses the issues, and then stay long enough to implement that plan.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This is one of the most important jobs in government, although you wouldn’t think it, given the way the role has been treated as an afterthought in recent years.
“Children and young people are paying the price for this constant upheaval and the lack of grasp and understanding of the many problems facing the education service.”