Justine Greening says student finance should stop being treated as a political football

Boris Johnson’s social mobility plan could create the change we’ve been waiting for – now he just has to deliver

As former education secretary, I know a clear route towards levelling up Britain is the best way for the government to give voters what they need

Justine Greening@JustineGreening
Wednesday 08 January 2020 18:47
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“While talent is spread evenly across our country, opportunity is not. None of us should accept this.” That is an extract from the foreword of the 2017 Department for Education Social Mobility Action Plan. Its introduction was entitled “Levelling Up Opportunity”. I know the words well, because I was the secretary of state for education who wrote them.

These phrases were adopted regularly by Boris Johnson in the general election campaign and since reaching No 10. One of his top three objectives is levelling up opportunity, alongside getting Brexit done and improving the NHS. The new government needs to adopt the strategy that lay behind those words, not just the rhetoric itself.

As MPs return to work, there is rightly much focus on those northern constituencies newly won by the Conservative Party. People saw through a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party that was ultra anti-opportunity and anti-business and worst of all, anti-aspiration. Corbyn’s Labour Party even abolished having social mobility as an objective, preferring instead to talk down to working-class voters as "vulnerable". Voters showed Corbyn they wanted a hand up, not a hand-out.

But having gained their vote, Johnson’s government now needs to begin 2020 by moving quickly onto delivering change on the ground for voters who gave him his majority.

There are three ways that ministers can level up Britain. In education, it’s about nurturing Britain’s talent; in business, the emphasis must be on spreading opportunity to more communities; and third, in government, reform must begin with an emergency social mobility budget followed by refocusing the not fit for purpose Treasury.

In education, the DfE Social Mobility Action Plan already sets out key ambitions to close education gaps that open up throughout school years and beyond. It must be properly resourced by Treasury. New ministers should resist wasting months simply reinventing a wheel to call their own.

In addition, the government must actively target more social mobility cold spots beyond the existing 12 opportunity areas. They bring together schools, businesses and communities working intensively to improve local education outcomes by having a tailored plan, supported by DfE teams. It’s a nuanced approach, not the usual one-size-fits-all Whitehall policy fix. "Opening" a person’s improved future life chances is more complicated than building a new road, but it’s actually what can make the biggest difference.

To spread opportunity, businesses are therefore a crucial part of the answer. The Social Mobility Pledge campaign I founded is galvanising hundreds of businesses, which collectively employ three million people, to play a more strategic role in delivering opportunities to people and communities who otherwise don’t get enough.

They are working in schools to lift aspirations, opening their doors to offer work experience and apprenticeships and making sure their recruitment practices are fair and don’t screen out talent before it's even walked through the door. Tax incentives should form part of the opportunity area offer to further incentivise businesses to invest in areas that are often overlooked.

Within government, the Treasury needs root and branch reform. In June last year, I held a parliamentary debate saying it was a department not fit for purpose on delivering equality of opportunity and social mobility. That’s because it doesn’t know how to value investment in people and therefore cannot take sensible investment decisions.

Johnson’s government should learn the lessons from all those that have gone before with good intentions but failed. Infrastructure projects and regeneration funds are necessary but not sufficient in isolation to tackle systemic inequality of opportunity. It needs a much more comprehensive approach, sustained for longer. Recognising that talent is spread evenly while opportunity is not? Levelling up Britain? These are exactly the right ideas as we enter a new decade that will bring about dramatic change across our country. Whether Johnson can deliver on them or the next Labour leadership steals a march on those ideas will be the real battle for the next five years.

Justine Greening is former education secretary and Conservative MP for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields​

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