Justine Greening interview: ‘We need a longer-term strategy to help disadvantaged pupils post-Covid’

Justine Greening deployed the now-famous phrase “levelled-up Britain” back in 2015 in an acceptance speech on winning her Putney seat.

The Conservative politician, who was the party’s first fully comprehensive school-educated Secretary of State, used the speech to set out her own “national priorities”, which included the need to deliver “a levelled-up Britain where everyone can achieve their potential wherever they start, wherever they’re born”.

Once one of the most senior women in government, the Rotherham-born politician later became a leading agitator in the band of “Tory rebels” attempting to stop a no-deal Brexit, and stood down ahead of the last election after saying the Conservative Party was “becoming the Brexit Party”.

Today, the UK’s first gay female cabinet minister believes she can make more of a difference outside parliament than in the corridors of power.

During lockdown, when not walking her new nine-month-old puppy Cooper in St George’s Park, or watching boxsets with her partner, the 51-year-old has been working with businesses on her long-term campaign, the Social Mobility Pledge. It is a drive to make workplaces in London and around the country more diverse, and open up opportunities for disadvantaged young people.

The campaign’s website frequently repeats Ms Greening’s “levelling up” mantra – though it is a phrase now more often thought of as synonymous with Boris Johnson.

 Today Justine Greening says she believes she can ‘make more of a difference’ outside parliament than in the corridors of power (Leon NealGetty Images)

Adressing the nation as the UK left the European Union on January 31, the Prime Minister said “this is the moment when we really begin to unite and level up”. It had also been a motif on his campaign and has popped up in several major speeches in recent months.

Speaking from her Putney home, Ms Greening explains that the term becoming a slogan for the current government proves that “in a way my initial mission of getting it to the top of the agenda in parliament is one I have managed to do”.

“Part of setting up the social mobility pledge was to raise levelling up up the agenda. It was one of the things that I’ve talked to all the prospective Conservative Party leaders about, and of course Boris Johnson has adopted that language and that agenda, and so in a way my initial mission of getting it to the top of the agenda in parliament is one I have managed to do,” she says.

“But fundamentally, for me, it was more about practical change on the ground that could transform young people’s lives. I think I can do more on social mobility outside Parliament than in. Politics was the way to do it… But I think now I just felt that you have more impact working outside of parliament on the ground with businesses and communities and organisations and that’s where I could really make a difference, which is why I decided to leave.”

As a politician she was well-liked on both sides of the house. Perhaps her most controversial policy came during a period as equalities minister in 2017 and 2018: Greening oversaw changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to allow self-identification of gender without a doctor’s approval – a move the current government is looking to drop.

Greening is reluctant to discuss the current, male-dominated cabinet, or her own trailblazing role in government. But she does think that Westminster is “changing for the better, but that change is too slow”.

Greening ‘raised the levelling up agenda with all the prospective Conservative Party leaders’ (Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/Getty Images)

She is also adamant that, although Boris Johnson’s stated mission to quash regional inequalities is the right idea, it cannot focus entirely on deprived northern regions but must continue to see efforts to make the capital a more equal place.

“A levelling up strategy that doesn’t have London as a part of it will fail,” she explains. “I don’t think you’re going to have a levelled up Britain until you have a levelled up London, and so what we can’t see is a government agenda that just focuses on the north, because actually levelling up is something the whole country needs, not just part of it.

“When I came up with the phrase levelling up, the reason I chose those words is because you don’t improve opportunities for other young people by taking it away from those who have already got it.

“I grew up in Rotherham. I never felt my life would be fixed by taking away someone else’s opportunity and giving it to me. What I wanted was more opportunity.”

She says Londoners have no time to lose. “I think what happens with Covid is that the opportunity gap that was already there gets a lot wider, a lot faster, so it’s even more urgent now for us to get our act together.”

Education minister between 2016 and 2018, Greening is still a regular commentator on the sector. In a column for the Daily Mail in May, she called for creative solutions to get disadvantaged children back into classrooms during the lockdown, such as repurposing unused office space and meeting rooms.

The former education secretary had some suggestions for Gavin Williamson (Sky News)

Today she is critical of the government’s Covid-19 education response. She believes secretary of state Gavin Willamson needs to invest in youth provision and mentoring for disadvantaged pupils in the coming months, and says there is still “not enough detail from ministers about how they are going to make sure that children can catch up”.

The need is greatest for those who will not have been receiving sufficient homeschooling, and she argues there is a need for a “longer term strategy”.

“I very much welcome that billion pounds put into education, but the disruption to children’s schooling and young people’s education has been much more profound and will require not just a short but a longer term strategy, and that’s what I want to see brought forward by the government sooner rather than later,” she says.

“Putting investment into youth provision and mentoring will become really important over the coming months.

“Additional tutoring is absolutely crucial. That doesn’t just need to be for the short term – potentially we should look whether that is a long term benefit we can bring to children and young people in state schools from underprivileged backgrounds.”

The Department for Education told the Standard its £1billion Covid catch-up fund “will support schools to tackle the impact of lost teaching time as pupils return” and include “£350m for a new National Tutoring Programme for the most disadvantaged”.

`Beagle Spaniel cross Cooper, nine months, has been making lockdown a joy for the former minister and her partner (Justine Greening)

Despite her criticisms, the politician is confident some positives can come from the crisis: “Covid has been a massive challenge for young people’s education, but it could also be the moment where we take a decision to run it differently in the future.”

Now that she is no longer a politician, relaxing is easier. Greening admits that “you don’t realise just how much” being an MP “dominates life” until you quit, adding: “It’s just been nice being more at home and seeing more of Tess and having a normal life. I’ve really enjoyed doing that.”

The politician first started out in the City, but unlike other former ministers says she now has no set career goal – although she will not rule anything out.

She explains: “For me, getting into politics was never about me being something, it was always about achieving things and doing something, and that is how my brain will always work.”

Now she is longer holding surgeries, she is “excited” to have managed to find a new way of meeting loads of people – taking Cooper, a Beagle Spaniel cross, for walks around St George’s Park.


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