Interview: Justine Greening—we’re still waiting for the government’s education response

The former Tory cabinet minister says you can’t level up without giving young people more opportunities

November 11, 2021
Photo: Dinendra Haria / Alamy
Photo: Dinendra Haria / Alamy

“We have a national mission to level up opportunity across this country.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, this quote was not taken from one of the prime minister’s recent speeches, but from a paper published by the Department for Education in 2017, then under the leadership of Justine Greening.

Greening first landed on the concept of a “levelled-up Britain” in 2015 and regularly used the phrase during her tenure as education secretary from 2016 until 2018.

According to Greening, “levelling up” entered Johnson’s political lexicon following a conversation the two had during the 2019 Conservative Party leadership contest. Greening recalled speaking to every candidate about levelling up, but found Johnson above all understood “how politically powerful it was as a concept.”

Since standing down as an MP in 2019, Greening has continued to be a passionate advocate for levelling up, primarily through the Social Mobility Pledge, a campaign she co-founded which encourages businesses and universities to do more to improve social mobility.

And for Greening, the core component of any levelling up strategy must be education.

Discussing the impact of Covid-19 on inequality, she highlighted the “underlying levelling-up challenge that was already there” that starts with education, as “the gaps in people’s life chances open up right from the word go.”

The deepening of existing inequalities throughout the pandemic has been widely reported, and Greening told me this remains a concern during the recovery, with evidence suggesting children from less privileged backgrounds are finding it harder to catch up on lost learning than their peers. She argued there is a risk of Covid worsening inequalities for the long term unless “much more ambitious action” is taken.

On the government’s education response so far, she was dismissive—“we’re still waiting for it really”—although she acknowledged that last month’s Budget and Spending Review contained some welcome, if limited, pledges.

Education was predicted to be one of the losers in the Budget, and this largely proved to be true. Although the chancellor announced a £4.7bn funding boost for schools in England by 2024-25, per pupil this only represents a return to 2010 levels of spending.

An extra £1.8bn of funding for the education recovery was also announced, bringing the total to £4.9bn. Critics were quick to point out that this is still less than a third of the £15bn recommended by former catch-up tsar Kevan Collins, who resigned in June over the lack of funding set aside by the government.

“Collins quite rightly set out a much broader ambition,” Greening said.

However, she stressed the need to also think beyond the recovery, arguing that “a more comprehensive, long-term plan” on education was required to address pre-existing gaps in outcomes.

In her view, we should place less emphasis on “knowing stuff” and more on developing the skills young people need in the world of work—academic skills, but also teamworking, creativity, problem-solving and resilience.

She argued that the education system should ensure young people not only get the knowledge and skills they need to climb the ladder but also receive “the right advice and the right experiences… to make good decisions about which the right ladder is.”

This was a theme she raised at various points; the idea that the availability and quality of opportunities are only two parts of a more complex puzzle.

We need “much more ambitious action” to prevent Covid worsening inequality

“[Y]ou can build a brilliant system for people, but if they haven’t got the right awareness of it or the… sense of it being a real opportunity for them because they just think it’s nothing to do with someone like them…

“Because it’s law and they maybe never thought about law—I never met a lawyer growing up in Rotherham.

“And if they then haven’t got the right knowledge and skills, because the education system academically has let them down—you can have all the best post-16 pathways in the world, but they won’t be ones that in practice are available to people.”

She spoke from personal experience of the limitations a person’s worldview can place on the opportunities they perceive to be available to them. Her aspiration growing up was to be the first person in her family to go to university.

“Years later I would be sat round a cabinet table, opposite someone who at that very same age… coming from his background and at his school—his aspiration was to be world king.”

For her, inequality of opportunity can cause significant social and political harm: “it’s destabilising to people and to communities and to politics.”

Another element Greening sees as vital to an effective education plan is a more localised approach to policy. She believes this can be achieved through an expansion of the Opportunity Areas programme, one of her innovations as education secretary. The programme currently provides funding and support to 12 areas identified as having particularly low social mobility.

In her view, additional opportunity areas would allow “more local tailoring” of the national strategy to tackle the specific educational challenges of individual communities.

Asked about past criticism of the programme from the Education Select Committeewhich in 2019 said it was “unconvinced” that opportunity areas were the best way to improve social mobility—Greening highlighted progress on literacy and numeracy in the North Yorkshire Coast, Doncaster and Bradford opportunity areas, where the rate of improvement in those subjects had risen markedly above the national average.

Greening also emphasised how useful the partnerships built through the programme—between educational institutions, businesses, charities and local authorities—were during the pandemic, explaining how in Bradford a coalition of local bodies refocused their work on enabling children to continue learning.

As well as highlighting the need for more local input on policy, Greening identified a fundamental issue with central government’s approach to education spending.

“[I]f the timeframe… you’re looking at, as we just saw [in the Budget and Spending Review], is just three years on education… how can you possibly take good decisions on what a long-term approach is?”

She suggested at least a 10-year approach should be used: “then you’ll start to get the right decisions being made, because you’ll realise it’s an investment that does start to pay back in better outcomes.”

Greening highlighted the potential impact of Treasury short-termism on education spending: “If all you’re looking at is investment in schools as a cost, then the Treasury will try to minimise it… actually, it’s an investment in this nation’s future, and I’d argue the most important one.

“[The Treasury] need to have a shift of mindset and… of technical approach… to allow smarter, longer-term decisions to be taken.” Having previously said it does not value investment in people, she said there had been a greater recognition within the department of this issue, but she still thinks it is “a real Treasury blind spot.”

Returning to her own work, Greening discussed the “Levelling Up Goals,” developed by the coalition of organisations involved in the Social Mobility Pledge. The intention of the Goals, she said, was to take a complex development problem—delivering equality of opportunity in Britain—and break it down into specific objectives that need to be achieved to make a difference.

According to Greening, businesses, civil society and local government can all contribute: “The missing piece… is where national government is going to play a role… that is the question that the levelling up white paper [which will be published ‘by the end of the year’ according to the Treasury] has to answer.”

As our conversation came to an end, her confidence in the potential for overall success was evident: “I can literally see the solutions.”

“We probably already know how to do levelling up. We just need to pull it together.”

Now read Rachel Sylvester on why levelling up is meaningless without education reform