Justine Greening is best known to many in the further education (FE) sector as the former secretary of state for education, a position she held in Theresa May’s government from 2016 to 2018.
Significantly, in doing so she became the first education secretary to have gone to a state school, itself a damning indictment of the way in which an individual’s life chances can be dictated by their social background.
Greening was born and brought up in Rotherham, taking her A Levels at her local sixth form college after leaving school. She trained as an accountant and worked in business for a few years, before she found herself drawn into the world of politics, at least partly down to a desire to improve social mobility – something that would become a defining strand of her career.
“I gradually got more involved in my local community and ended up becoming a councillor and enjoyed that, and then started to think about standing for Parliament,” she recalls. “I just felt that people needed and deserved to be listened to, and I wanted to make a difference in my community. I believe people can make a difference and that the more you unlock their potential, the more of a difference they can make in their own lives and other people’s.”
After winning the seat of Putney for the Conservatives in 2005, Greening would go on to hold a number of key posts, including economic secretary to the Treasury, transport secretary and international development secretary. But it was her time as education secretary that she sees as the highlight of her time in government, describing it as “the best job I ever had”.
“It’s hard to say there’s a lot I would have done differently,” she says. “I felt I was able, for the first time, to really get the prime minister and chancellor onboard in relation to the FE and vocational education agenda. I remember a Cabinet committee meeting chaired by the prime minister; the chancellor was there as well. I was explaining why it was so important that this part of the education system had the investment and focus to help young people succeed.
“I saw the penny drop with them that the school system wasn’t going to be enough to tackle what Theresa May called the ‘burning injustices agenda’. My regret was that I didn’t have more time in that role to use the momentum that we had picked up on the social mobility agenda, and the focus on FE in particular that was central to that overall strategy.”
Making an impact
Greening believes she had a constructive relationship with the teaching profession and highlights some measures of which she’s particularly proud. Top was the creation of ‘social mobility opportunity areas’, which saw targeted funding to link schools and employers in areas with weak social mobility. “They’re all still going and what struck me was how motivated those schemes were on the ground,” she says. “Even though I left the department, they had become so bedded down that they were able to keep on working, which was the ultimate test.”
She cites the Scarborough opportunity area, which later became the North Yorkshire coast scheme, where a focus on teacher recruitment saw schools in the local area fill all posts for the first time last September. “When you have one team working together, from the Department for Education to teachers on the ground, and bringing in other actors at a local level like businesses, universities and the wider education sector, it can make a real difference,” she says.
She also highlights the emphasis on career development for teachers, in response to a trend for them to leave the sector. “It seemed to me that there were some brilliant people who went into the profession, and the more we could do to help them develop and grow into their role – and, crucially, not to leave – the better,” she says. “If you improve a teacher’s ability to be the very best version of themselves then they do a much better job and have better career, and that’s crucial for people’s education.”
Greening believes an education strategy needs a longer-term approach, rather than different secretaries and governments having their own agendas. “There probably is too much change in the personnel but what that role really needs is a longevity of strategy, and one that isn’t just focused on one change in the system,” she says. “It needs a holistic and comprehensive approach that has at its heart a clear sense of what we’re trying to accomplish, which, in my mind, should be social mobility and levelling up, and providing equality of opportunity through giving young people the best possible start in life. Maybe if we had more of a cross-party approach then whoever was in that secretary of state role would be able to get further faster.”
Social Mobility Pledge
After a stint on the backbenches, Greening announced she would not re-stand for Parliament in the December 2019 election, having earlier lost the whip after voting against Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit. Leaving politics enabled her to refocus on her passion of ensuring equality of opportunity, and she set up the Social Mobility Pledge alongside entrepreneur David Harrison.
The concept is simple: to build a coalition of businesses, universities and other education providers to commit to broadening their base when it comes to developing talent and recruitment. “I felt we had a plan in place on how to close the gap in education but there wasn’t much of a plan for closing the gap that opens up for people after they have left education,” she explains. “Britain is still too much about connections and not enough about competence. I wanted to encourage companies to think strategically about how they could spread the opportunities they had into wider talent pools, which I felt they were missing out on.”
More than 500 businesses employing more than five million people have signed up, as well as over 50 universities with more than two million students. “We’ve really shifted the dial on businesses’ attitudes to social mobility,” she says. “When we first started, there were some companies that understood that levelling up mattered; now most businesses are in a very different place. Companies have changed their recruitment practices and are thinking differently about how they need to work with local schools.”
Greening is keen to bring FE colleges into the scheme. “We encourage businesses to look at apprenticeships, and many of them might work in sectors such as utilities or construction, so we’re asking them to think about where those apprentices come from, and whether they can focus on working in communities that are perhaps more social mobility cold spots than others,” she says. “Many universities we work with want to have brilliant partnerships with their local colleges, so it would be great if colleges became part of the Pledge.”
The need to level up has become even more important in the wake of Covid-19. “It has made all of those inequalities wider, so the challenge has got bigger and more urgent,” Greening says. “But it has also forced businesses to confront the fact that they’re part of a much wider community. The ones that have done that successfully are conscious of the fact that, as the economy gets tougher, they’re part of the solution to make sure equality of opportunity isn’t disrupted for those in communities that maybe they had not seen enough when times were good.”
To help with this, Greening has launched the C-19 Business Pledge, where companies commit to offer support to employees and their local communities. “When the first lockdown happened, we were conscious that we had a network of hundreds of businesses that we could mobilise,” she says.
The initiative saw construction firms donating PPE to the NHS, businesses donating laptops for home learning and lawyers working for free for those who were struggling. “For a lot of those companies it was a watershed moment,” she says. “They got amazing feedback from the communities they were helping and it has inspired them to think about where they fit into how we level up Britain.”
Outside of work, like many of us, Greening has been spending plenty of time outdoors, including walking her dog, Cooper. “I’m a big outdoors person and love gardening so for me the happiest times are when I’m outside,” she says. “I love it because however challenging other things are, it shows there are some constants you can rely on.”
Still, the focus for Greening going forward remains her passion for social mobility. “One of the reasons I left Cabinet was to work more broadly across Parliament as well as with businesses, to make the case that this should be right at the top of the agenda, and that Britain isn’t going to be successful unless we allow everybody the same chance to get on in life,” she says.
“I feel as if I have managed to achieve that; the key now is actually delivering on some of those promises that have been made to the wider country about levelling up. FE is going to be right at the centre of that.”
Favourite drink: Gin and tonic.
Dog or cat: Impossible question! Both.
Holiday: Walking in Pembrokeshire.
Food: Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
TV show: Peter Kay’s Car Share.
Nick Martindale is editor of inTuition
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