Nick Stuart is a career civil servant who wears a navy trouser and pale blue shirt uniform. Despite his flashy, patterned accessories — multicoloured star-printed tie, African print belt, and red socks with black spots — Stuart has quietly worked at the heart of England’s education policy for 40 years. From 1985 to 2001, he worked his way up the education department, serving as principal finance officer, deputy secretary for schools, and director general for employment and lifelong learning. Stuart was even present when Kenneth Baker was choosing his office in the department’s Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster, and he headed the initial pilots of league tables. He is considered by many to be the mastermind behind the 1988 education reforms that introduced a national curriculum and abolished the Inner London Education Authority and grant-maintained schools. However, Stuart’s name is unknown beyond Whitehall circles, as he has never sought a public profile. Instead, he claims to have been a “clerk of the works” relating to the 1988 Education Reform Act. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has now appointed him as its new chair.
Prior to joining the civil service, Stuart pursued an interest in sports journalism. His father was a foreign correspondent for the BBC, and Stuart attended boarding school before graduating from Oxford. After marrying young and having children, Stuart realized that he could not afford to be a trainee sports journalist, so he joined the civil service.
Since retiring in 2001, Stuart has held dozens of positions, including on the QCA board, as the chair of Niace, and now the SSAT. SSAT was established 25 years ago as a network for city technology colleges and has now grown to include federations of schools and academies, with more than 90% of state secondaries in England, 400 primaries, and 1,700 schools abroad as members. Its 40-strong council was replaced by a board of 12 after Sir Cyril Taylor stepped down in 2007. The organization competes for contracts with consulting firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Tribal, Capita, and CfBT. However, for schools, the SSAT is primarily a membership organization that facilitates networking, mentoring, sharing, and the development of leadership.
Stuart believes that the education system is facing a recession and that future governments will ultimately have to make cuts and do more with less. As a former civil servant who has witnessed past recessions, he feels that organizations like the SSAT and Niace will face challenging times ahead. However, Stuart believes that the SSAT will prepare itself through expanding abroad and possibly into primary and further education. If the Conservative Party’s plans for primary academies come into fruition, it would fit the SSAT model neatly. The SSAT’s model for successful academies focuses on recreating schools with new leadership and dynamism, rather than new buildings. Stuart believes that the future of academies will need to adapt to survive the recession, with sponsors offering new visions and better management rather than just funding. The SSAT is increasingly considered a “shadow DCSF” due to the scale of its work. However, Stuart emphasizes that the SSAT is not merely a business, to win resources. Rather, it is one of the fastest-growing charities, and it needs to pay its way to survive and prosper.
He expresses hope that the upcoming school-by-school report cards from the government will play an important role in resolving the issue at hand. When asked what he would do differently if he could rewrite the 1988 act today, Stuart passionately discusses the importance of lifelong learning and its abandonment. He discloses that an upcoming Niace review will emphasize the increasing significance of lifelong learning with changing demographics. Stuart suggests assigning greater responsibility to local authorities to facilitate collaboration between schools.
Regarding admissions, Stuart admits he has given up searching for a solution as it poses an insurmountable challenge. He recalls a visit to Stockholm where locals couldn’t understand why children in the UK don’t attend their local school, and vice versa. Stuart highlights the lasting impact of the historical grammar school divide, which has limited educational choices for students.
Stuart appears uneasy discussing the controversial topics of academies, league tables, and admissions, and avoids criticizing the government as a public servant. He returns to his Whitehall mindset.