Damian Hinds, Britain’s new Education Secretary, has gained an unfair reputation for being boringly reliable. “No one, as far as I can see,” wrote the Conservative commentator Andrew Gimson last week, “has yet managed to write an exciting article about Hinds.” Those who have taken a look at Hinds’s YouTube channel – which, admittedly, has not been updated since 2010 – may feel this sells him rather short. There you will find an engaging clip of Hinds teaching English in Rwanda, striding around the classroom in a rugby shirt as he leads a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. He later introduces his students to the Times’s “Polygon” puzzle.
The Rwanda work – part of a Tory party humanitarian project – is close to Hinds’s heart: apparently, he went to Rwanda as the first stop on his honeymoon. That’s typical of the man, according to a former staffer. “He’s a wonderful guy,” I’m told. “A genuinely empathetic man with an ethic of service.”
Others praise the East Hampshire MP’s political abilities. “He’s impressive,” says ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman, “in that he’s obviously intelligent and focused and considered, and has a decisiveness about him.” Goodman, who predicted Hinds’s ascent to the Cabinet two months before it happened, observes: “He’s the sort of quiet, effective, popular operator who gets promoted.”
Hinds, who is 48, is a Mass-going Catholic with a strong social conscience. “He lives and breathes Catholic social teaching,” the ex-staffer says. Some of his longstanding concerns, like credit unions, reflect his commitment to helping the vulnerable. ConservativeHome has described him as a “liberal Catholic”, though only, Goodman says, on the basis of one vote: Hinds supported the same-sex marriage act in 2013.
Other aspects of Hinds’ record may also disappoint Catholics. He was a minister at the Department for Work and Pensions during debates over the “two-child policy”, which cut off certain benefits to couples with three or more kids. (Hinds, himself married with three children, called the measure “fair and proportionate”.)
But there is one policy area where Hinds’s beliefs may be very welcome to Catholics: he strongly favours removing the cap on faith schools. At present, a new free school cannot select more than 50 per cent of its pupils on the basis of their religion. The bishops say this prevents new Catholic schools, because, as bishops, they cannot turn a child away for being Catholic.
Hinds has repeatedly expressed scepticism about the cap. Despite the protests from Humanists UK and other secularist groups, this has less to do with his Catholicism and more to do with his previous life as a consultant in the brewing and hotel industries. He’s a man who wants to see the evidence, and can zip through spreadsheets with ease. (This helps to explain his unexciting reputation.)
As a member of the education select committee, he was convinced that Catholic schools’ above-average ethnic and economic diversity, their record of achieving good results in disadvantaged areas, and their popularity with parents, make them part of the solution. That appears also to be Theresa May’s view, hence her manifesto promise to lift the cap.
So this week’s newspaper headlines predicting the end of the cap may well be correct. Hinds is likely to study the issue with his customary caution, and make sure he has a watertight case, before the government moves. But the reform may not take too long. “My understanding,” says Goodman, “is that it can be done by fiat. You don’t need a vote.”
The education brief contains other, possibly bigger challenges: a grammar schools consultation, the schools funding formula, and reforms to technical education and tuition fees. May’s former advisor Nick Timothy wrote in the Telegraph that, if Hinds makes a success of the job, “he will be a convincing candidate” for Prime Minister. Michael Gove has also tipped him for the top job.
But Paul Goodman, who runs ConservativeHome’s survey of party members’ preferred leader, won’t be including Hinds just yet. “I tend to add names if I can find any evidence of a real interest, a sort of gleam in the person’s eye. And while I assume that every up-and-coming minister wants to make it to Number 10, I have no more evidence that that’s the case with Damian than with anyone else.”
Damian Hinds is not the kind of MP, like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Edward Leigh, who is likely to emphasise the rights of the family or the Church. But he recognises that Catholic schools have a part to play in Britain’s flourishing – and he has an excellent chance to put that belief into practice.
This article first appeared in the January 19 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here