An early supporter of the new Prime Minister, and longstanding cabinet member, Justine Greening was always heading for promotion in a Theresa May cabinet. Her former territory, the Department for International Development, loyally picked up a lot of slack from the Home Office on migration issues under Greening’s leadership, and she has regularly worked closely with May.
Personal allegiances aside, Greening is a sensible choice for the Department for Education. She is the first Education Secretary to have been educated at a comprehensive school, and as the first openly gay woman to serve in cabinet, she is a good choice for the Women and Equalities brief, which she also carries.
Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister highlighted two huge problems that many would attribute to the education system: how white working-class boys are “less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university”; and how “If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately”.
Going some way to solving these two huge problems will be Greening’s aim, though really the issues go far deeper than her new department. Still, there is scope for improvement, beginning with an increased focus upon early years education: by the age of five, there is a 19-month gap in school readiness between the most and least disadvantaged children.
The UK is almost unique in having larger class sizes for primary than secondary school, which is barmy; addressing that should be part of a whole project of centring UK education policy on the first years in life, which are the most important, and ceasing the endless tinkering with secondary education.
Alas, many in the Conservative party do not want the tinkering to stop. There is a renewed call for the ban on opening new grammars to be overturned. There are 163 remaining today, concentrated in a few selective counties. The government’s approval of a new grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks last October, ten miles away from the original site, hints at many more to come, with ten council areas keen to open more satellite schools – effectively bringing grammar schools back through the back door.
The nostalgic argument to bring back grammar schools seems perverse considering that, in areas that maintain fully selective education like Kent, poorer pupils do worse than the national average and the attainment gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students is above the national average. It also ignores that the countries that perform best in education are those that separate latest, and demand the highest standards of all pupils until 16.
Greening will have more to grapple with than her predecessor Nicky Morgan, because the education brief has now been expanded to include higher education. Integrating the two could have some negative effects: schools and universities will now effectively be competing with each other for funding within the department. Whereas universities’ former place in the Department for Business recognised how they are a British export and a driver of business.
But this integration gives Greening the opportunity to improve communication between elite universities and state schools, thereby improving access to the top universities. The coming vote on increasing tuition fees to £9,250 might give her an opportunity to demand that some universities ramp up their access work, as they did when fees when trebled in 2010. Yet she will soon realise that, while some universities could undoubtedly do more, the crux of the issue is way earlier, in the earliest years of life. This should be her main focus.