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Catherine McKinnell: 9 facts about the new schools minister

Catherine McKinnell is the new schools minister, one of her Department for Education colleagues has confirmed.

The MP for Newcastle North was appointed to Bridget Phillipson’s ministerial team earlier this week.

Jacqui Smith, the former home secretary and schools minister, was given a seat in the House of Lords and appointed further and higher education minister over the weekend.

Smith told the For the Many podcast, which she previously hosted with broadcaster Iain Dale, that McKinnell would be taking on the “schools role” in the new team.

Governments are free to set and change the roles ministers hold, so there is no guarantee McKinnell will have the exact same set of responsibilities as previous schools ministers.

But here’s what we know about McKinnell.

1. She was born in Newcastle in 1976

At 48, she is far from the oldest politician to serve as schools minister in recent years.

Nick Gibb was 63 when he stood down last year.

But she is by no means the youngest either. Jonathan Gullis was 32 when he was appointed (albeit briefly) in 2022.

2. She‘s been MP for Newcastle North since 2010

After her election she served as shadow solicitor general, shadow children’s minister, a shadow Treasury minister and shadow attorney general.

However, she resigned from the latter role in 2016 citing the “negative path” she claimed Labour was following under leader Jeremy Corbyn.

She later served on the education committee, Treasury committee and chaired the petitions committee in Parliament.

3. She attended comprehensive school

McKinnell attended Sacred Heart Comprehensive School in Fenham.

She studied politics and history at Edinburgh and then Law at Northumbria before working as an employment solicitor.

We reported last week that Sir Keir Starmer’s cabinet was on track to be the most comprehensively-educated ever.

4. She faced off against a prominent Tory teacher

Mark Lehain, free school founder and former head of the New Schools Network and Parents and Teachers for Excellence, challenged McKinnell at the 2019 general election, losing by more than 5,700 votes.

He went on to become a DfE special adviser.

5. She has promised Ofsted reform quickly

McKinnell received a baptism of fire last year, appearing at the Labour Party conference just weeks after her appointment.

Pressed on Labour’s plans for Ofsted, she told one panel “it really does feel that we have a system currently where inspections aren’t just dreaded, but ineffective”.

“They are adding to the recruitment and retention crisis in our schools. And they are providing very little useful information for parents.”

She pledged to reform Ofsted “in the shortest time possible” but with the “greatest engagement possible”.

6. She’s already spoken about school issues in the role

Responding to yesterday’s SATs results. She thanked “all our wonderful teachers and staff who tirelessly supported children to prepare for the assessments earlier in the year”.

But she said “despite the brilliance of our teachers, these figures show there are far too many pupils who are not meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, and almost total stagnation in progress nationally over the past three years”.

7. She wants the ‘joy of learning’ back in schools

McKinnell has spoken about how she wants to put “the joy of teaching and the joy of learning” back into schools.

She told Tes last year that the previous government was “rightly proud” of the phonics programme, but that she wanted to look at “how much people are building those broader skills”.

8. ‘Shared interests’ with boss Phillipson

She was elected at the same time as her boss, Bridget Phillipson, and they both represent north east constituencies. She said last year they had “always maintained a lot of shared interests”.

9. A campaigner and ‘details person’

McKinnell has described herself as a “details person” and said she was “always a campaigner…I like to know what’s underneath what’s being said and why it’s being said and really get to grips with something”.

However, in an interview with LBC around a month ago, McKinnell was unable to say how many free breakfasts the party would provide under its breakfast clubs policy.

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