Nicky Morgan today made her first speech following the Tories’ General Election victory and her re-appointment as Secretary of State for Education – and it was a speech that bore all the hallmarks of her predecessor.

While she wrote to schools outlining her support for teachers earlier in the week, today’s announcement opening a new round of applications for free schools points to where the Department for Education will be focusing its efforts over the next five years.

Morgan described free schools as the “modern engines of social justice” and promised to uphold the Tory manifesto pledge to open 500 more free schools in this parliament. There are currently 254 free schools in England.

Pre-Election, the free schools programme was in jeopardy – a Labour Government would almost certainly have cancelled this latest round of applications, even if it would have retained free schools already open.  However, with a majority and a mandate to govern, the free schools programme will underpin the Conservatives’ education policies and we can expect reforms to be driven by a desire to give more power and autonomy to individual schools and academy chains.

As Secretary of State, Morgan will be responsible for taking these policies forward and many observers will be keen to see how energetically she drives education reform.  Appointed in last July’s re-shuffle, Morgan had a relatively uneventful first nine months in office.  This may well have been intentional – in Michael Gove she had big and divisive shoes to fill, so keeping her head down and seeking to show some love to teachers as a safe pair of hands in the run-up to a tight election was her strategy.

But nearly a year on, Gove continues to cast a long shadow.  Many view the reforms as his, particularly the free schools and academies programme which has been the backbone of Tory education policy for the past five years. Sitting in Cabinet, it is difficult to imagine Michael sitting quietly as Nicky outlines education policy.

These policies will not change any time soon and many in the education sector will be keen that there are no policy announcements which increase their workloads. So, to make her mark and the role of Secretary of State her own, Morgan will need to take ownership of the reforms and see them through to the end.  Education observers will watch with interest to see if she can make the education brief her own.  Her strong performance on the Andrew Marr show last weekend demonstrates that she is definitely up for the challenge.

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