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Is the Tory Education Secretary Really a Social Mobility Champion?

Her track record suggests otherwise.
Theresa May and Justine Greening speaking at #YouthForChange (Photo via DIFID Flikr)

On Wednesday Education Secretary Justine Greening claimed that social mobility is now the "guiding mission of the education department" at an education summit hosted by the Sutton Trust, a foundation "which improves social mobility in the UK through evidence-based programmes". Sounds great. However, given the Conservatives' recent track record of saying one thing and doing the complete opposite you'd be forgiven for being a bit sceptical.


Earlier this year, the Education Secretary oversaw the first funding cuts to schools since 1990. Kevin Courtney, the General Secretary of the National union of Teachers (NUT) told me that, "If Justine Greening is serious about social mobility being the guiding mission of the education department then she needs to start by addressing the issue of cuts to school budgets. Without sufficient funding schools cannot give the well-rounded and well-resourced education that children and young people need and deserve".

Greening has also been uncritical of grammar schools – despite the lack of evidence suggesting they help children from poorer backgrounds – and has consistently voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits. Hmmmm.

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Greening's statement could be seen in the same context as Theresa May's "re-launch" speech on Tuesday: a thinly veiled attempt to win back support from the electorate since their offer of a strong and stable miserable void was roundly. They're actually having to offer some sort of improvement in people's lives now.

So, what is Greening offering exactly? At the summit Greening announced her plans to introduce 11 new "research schools" funded partly by the government and partly by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Institute for effective education. A "research school" is an existing school that has applied successfully for £200k to fund research into "what works best in the classroom". She's also announced an "evidence champion" to make sure decisions on improving schools are based on real evidence.


I wonder if they'll look into evidence of the effect funding cuts will have in classrooms. Kevin Courtney from the NUT said, "Cuts to staff, increased class sizes and dropping subjects from the curriculum is already happening at an alarming rate simply to balance the books. While this should not be happening in any school clearly this will affect children from families who cannot afford to supplement their children's education and will set social mobility back decades"

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, will be the first to take the title, which makes it sound like he won a very boring, maths-heavy gameshow. He also served as the chief exec of Tower Hamlets Council from 2009 to 2011 on a salary of £190k, just before it was named the "worst area for child poverty" in the UK in 2012.

Digging further through the archives, other examples of Greening promoting social mobility include voting in favour of raising the undergraduate tuition fee cap from £3,000 to £9,000. The following year, she voted in favour of scrapping education maintenance allowance (EMA) which was designed to encourage those from poorer backgrounds to attend school.

Greening also voted in favour of turning all secondary schools into Academies in 2016, a contentious Conservative schooling policy driven by David Cameron's government. A report in 2013 from the Academies Commission reported that the programme was largely flawed and that "the result will be to worsen inequities, significantly damaging education". The report said "gross exaggeration in both the present and the previous governments' claims for the success of this far-reaching and costly policy". The government has since quietly scrapped plans to force academisation on schools however Greening's ambition still remains that "all schools should benefit from the freedom and autonomy that academy status brings".

With all that in mind, Greening's apparent awokening feels a bit hollow.


Top image via DIFID Flikr