Justine Greening takes over the education reins from Nicky Morgan

28 Aug

In the summer of 2016, Brexit led to the political demise of Ms Nicky Morgan, the ex-Education Secretary, and the appointment of Ms Justine Greening.

Ms Greening, representing Putney in London, was elected to Parliament in 2005.  Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, listed her as one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom.  Born in 1969, Ms Greening was appointed Economic Secretary to the Treasury in May 2010, becoming Secretary of State for Transport in October 2011.   In September 2012, she took charge of International Development and continued in the post before being appointed Education Secretary on 14 July 2016 by Prime Minister Theresa May.

In June 2016, Ms Greening announced on Twitter that she was in a “happy same-sex relationship”. She campaigned strongly to remain in Europe, though she acknowledged that that sometimes the country was better off outside it.  

(1)       Roots

The daughter and granddaughter of steel workers from Rotherham, Ms Greening, was educated at a comprehensive school.

She previously spoke of being from a “very ordinary background”, saying the teachers who taught her and former Conservative leader William Hague (both were students at a school nearby) “would not have thought” they would be teaching two cabinet ministers.

“But it was bloody hard work. One of the reasons I am a Conservative is that I believe in effort and reward, and linking them,” she told the Guardian.

Ms Greening is plain-speaking. She was tipped as a rising star in the party ahead of her new appointment and often compared to Margaret Thatcher by background and the way she speaks.

Ms Greening was an accountant before entering Parliament. She said that her father’s first-hand experience in the 1980s of the steel industry’s decline was formative. Her family went through difficult financial times.  This spurred her to study economics at Southampton University.  She then went to the London Business School where she was awarded an MBA.  She worked as an accountant in a number of big companies, the most noted being PricewaterhouseCooper and GlaxoSmithKline before embarking on a political career.

(2)       What is in Greening’s In-Tray

(a)        Multiple Accountabilities

Becky Francis, the Director of UCL (University College London) Institute of Education, set out what will be of paramount importance for Justine Greening in the coming months, the chief being sorting out the two-tier system of academies and local authority (LA) maintained schools.  Those working in them are subject to multiple accountabilities, which causes them mental distress.

Academies are now accountable to the Department for Education (DfE) and the Regional School Commissioners (RSCs).  The DfE and the RSCs have overlapping powers for academies.  Academies are also accountable to Local Authorities (LAs) in that LAs have a remit to ensure that the pupil admission arrangements are working fairly and effectively.    Schools are accountable to the DfE and their LAs.

Both, academies and schools, are accountable to Ofsted, the parents and the pupils.   Where stand-alone academies fail, they can be moved to a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT).   If they belong to a MAT, they could be moved to another MAT.  Where schools are failing the Ofsted litmus test, they are directed to a high-performing MAT.   In this milieu, all institutions have to ensure that they provide a good, if not outstanding, education and ensure that their pupils are making progress and achieving. They are distracted by having to account for their performances to so many bodies.

(b)        Institutional Structure

It is easy to forget that while obsessing about the divide that exists between schools and academies, we still have 163 grammar schools in the 36 LAs in the country.  The Labour Government curtailed further expansion of these schools in 1998.  Ms Nicky Morgan re-affirmed that there would be no new grammar schools.   However, in 2015, she approved the proposal to expand Weald Grammar School in Tonbridge, Kent, which opened up an “annexe” with 450 new places for girls in Sevenoaks (side-stepping the rule).   She described it as a “genuine expansion” of an existing school – one school on two sites.

In late July 2016, Conservative Voice, an activist group established by David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, launched a campaign to overturn Blair’s ban in seeking a “return of grammar schools through the country”.  More than 100 Conservative MPs are pressuring Ms Greening to “go back to the future” on school selection.  Ms Greening stated that she is “open-minded” about allowing new grammar schools in England.

The grammar school protagonists aver that these schools promote social mobility enabling working class children to move up the social ladder on professional merit.  However, the late Margaret Thatcher, who in a previous life was Secretary of State for Education, promoted the current comprehensive system in 1965.  She legislated the closure of grammar schools because there was cross-party recognition that the grammar/secondary modern school divide bred inequalities.  A number of intelligent people failed their 11-plus and, but for their doggedness, would have been condemned to poverty-ridden lives.    Many more have failed and it has been a waste for these people and the country that we could have done without.  The reality is that the educational performance of poorer pupils in areas where selection persists is significantly worse than their equivalents in comprehensive areas.

[This is not to deny that despite the abolition of selection by merit in most areas of the country, selection by wealth persists.  A recent survey of 1,100 parents of school-age children, revealed that they were willing to pay 18% more for a property near their preferred schools – equivalent to £32,000 on an average price of £180,000.  In London the extra cost of a property is much higher at £77,000 for a house costing £474,000.]

In Buckinghamshire, a county fully selective, a study revealed that private school pupils were two-and-a-half times more likely to pass the 11+ than state pupils.   The pass rate for pupils on free school meals (FSM) was one-eighth of the average.   There could be several reasons for this but one is that parents, who are well-off, are able to pay private tutors in the run-up to the battery of tests for their off-springs to ease them into grammar schools.

The Sutton Trust carried out a study recently which revealed that 3% of those attending existing grammar schools are entitled to free school meals.  The average number of FSM pupils in a comprehensive school or academy is 15.2%.  In Buckinghamshire, FSM pupils in non-grammar schools are much higher at 17.5%.   Altogether 13% of pupils admitted to grammar schools come from the independent sector that educates only 7% of the nation’s pupils.

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) states that deprived children were significantly less likely to get into a grammar school than the most privileged.   The inequality generates adult inequality in the world of work. Where there is selective education, there are bigger average wage gaps between the higher and lower income workers.   Also, the highest earners from grammar school areas are better off than those in similar comprehensive authorities.

Ms Greening, an ex-pupil of Oakwood Comprehensive School, will, no doubt, be minded to take note of the realities.  But she will be under considerable pressure not only from her backbenchers but also from Prime Minister Theresa May, who was reported in The Sunday Telegraph (7.8.2016) as planning to announce in the Conservatives’ autumn conference that she would be returning to a selective schools’ system so that she could promote social mobility – “a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few”.

A well-placed Whitehall source told The Times Educational Supplement (TES) that the government was likely to introduce about 20 grammar schools in a handful of “typical working class areas” such as the outskirts of Birmingham and other provincial cities.  Nick Timothy, one of Mrs May’s special adviser, who is the key cheer-leader for grammar schools and was formerly the director of the New Schools Network (which advises on the establishment of Free Schools), comes from Birmingham.

An editorial in The Times (9.10.2016) stated: “Grammar school pupils are still five times as likely to achieve five GCSEs in core (sic) subjects at grade C or above as those educated comprehensively, and those who progress to sixth forms are three times more likely to get three A grades at A level.”  It is clear that the very nature of selection means that May will be promoting a country for the privileged few.

Perhaps, Mrs May will pause and take note of the pronouncements of Ryan Shorthouse, the Director of the Bright Blue think tank for Conservative moderniser, said that a return to grammar school education would be a mistake.  “Some individuals from modest backgrounds have benefited from a grammar school education,” he said. “But policymakers need to look at the aggregate effects: poorer kids from selective areas do worse on average than their peers in non-selective areas. They are not engines of social mobility. The motivation for lifting the ban on new grammar schools would be political positioning.”

Emma Duncan, editor of the 1843 magazine, wrote in The Times 13 (13 August 2016): “The British political class’s obsession with selection prevents the country from focusing on the real problem with the education system, which is our failure to create a vocational strand.”

The Education Act 1944, whose architect was Rab Butler, envisaged a tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools.  Technical schools never ever saw the light of day.  Lord Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher’s Education Secretary, tried to resurrect them with his University Technical Colleges (UTC) programme. There are currently 39 UTCs in the country with another 11 planned to operate by 2018.   The decline of technical education is directly related to a fall in our manufacturing capacity.  Its absence lets down a generation of talented young people who have skills in areas other than finance, academia, human resources and the law.

(c)       Funding

While the government has trumpeted that the budgets of schools are being protected, this is the case only in cash terms.   The cost of services has increased, National Insurance has risen and employers’ contributions towards staff pensions has gone up.   The income, however, has remained static.  Accordingly, year-on-year, schools have had to call on their reserves and seek creatively to make ends meet. They have done this is in multifarious ways, including cutting on staff and asking parents to dig deep into (their) pockets with voluntary contributions.

The arrangements for the national funding formula (NFF) are now postponed, but the issue will take centre-stage in 2018/19, creating some winners and many losers.   It is likely that schools in the shire counties will make gains on the margins and those in the inner-city conurbations will be weeping and gnashing their teeth as they suffer financial loses.  Ms Greening will have to grasp the nettle of the NFF.

(d)        Stabilising Education

Ministers are in a dilemma.  To be re-elected, they have to ensure that they make an impact in the areas for which they are responsible.   Yet, they have limited time to do so.  Consequently, they are in a rush to make changes to the system they inherit and for which they have responsibility.  However, in education, it takes time to make those initiatives count. They have to be embedded first.   Sadly, in education, they have no time for that. Consequently, schools/academies are constantly bombarded with having to implement new legislation – both, primary and secondary.

Keziah Featherstone, Headteacher of the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol, has appealed to Ms Greening to give schools/academies a break and consider what is in the best interests of children, teachers and parents.  She mentions that the profession is “exhausted, battered and demoralised” but has to keep its eyes on the pupils, ensuring that standards are raised.  Not only has the Department for Education (DfE) moved goalposts constantly but has also made schools/academies change pitches consistently.

Primary schools/academies have had to effect changes in the curriculum, train their pupils to take new Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), create new assessment arrangements, and are forever minding their backs to please the Ofsted inspectors.  Secondary schools/academies have had to teach and prepare their pupils for a new raft of content for GCSEs and A Levels with the pass-mark being raised for the former.   The upshot has been that the teaching profession is haemorrhaging – with teachers either going into other professions or moving abroad where their pedagogical value is better recognised – at least monetarily – with the de facto devaluation of the pound.   (We currently have over 100,000 teachers teaching abroad at British and other schools.)

(e)        Keeping connected to Europe and beyond

Following the Brexit referendum, universities are worried that they will lose their links to Europe.  Writing in The Guardian, Koen Lamberts, Vice Chancellor of York University mentioned that the country receives 16% of the European research pot, the removal of which is bound to threaten British universities research capacity.  He appealed to Ms Greening to ensure that if and when this funding is lost it is replaced with something equivalent, but, he may be crying in the wind.  Universities, who promote divergent thinking, will have to engage in it themselves to find the wherewithal to continue with their research and innovative projects.

Richard Evans, President of Wolfson College, Professor Emeritus of History, Cambridge University, and Provost of Gresham College, London, appealed (in The Guardian) to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd “to remove students from the immigration statistics”.   The country has a reputation of being unfriendly towards students from abroad, he averred, adding that “we need to attract the best researchers and teachers from all over the world”.

(3)       Closing thoughts

Secretaries of State for Education do not have a long shelf-life.  Of the last dozen politicians in this post (going back to 21 May 1986), only three – Kenneth Baker (from 21 May 1986 to 24 July 1989), David Blunkett (2 May 1997 to 8 June 2001) and Michael Gove (11 May 2010 to 15 July 2010) – were in this position for more than three years.  The rest had shorter tenures.   Education desperately needs a period of stability if the changes that the government has made in recent years are to have any impact.   It also needs a steady and constant face to lead and be held to account.   Thanks to a capable civil service, there is a measure of this in government.   However, it is the politicians that are keen to be the movers and shakers.  The problem is that they vigorously move and shake, create disruption in our schools and then go off or are pushed out.

Ms Justine Greening comes with great promise.   If the country gives Theresa May the chance to lead into a sensible period in the future, could we appeal to her to keeping Ms Greening at education’s helm for some time too – perhaps to 2020?

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