Justine Greening's Resignation, Between The Lines

By Campaign Agent Joseph Perry

Last week, in an otherwise largely insignificant cabinet re-shuffle, Minister for Education Justine Greening resigned in quite a spectacular manner. Having been offered the position (albeit arguably a more junior one) of Minister for Work and Pensions, Greening instead ‘opted’ to exit the front bench on the grounds that ‘social mobility’ mattered to her more ‘than a ministerial career’. Now that the dust has settled on the recent re-shuffle, this article aims to return to Greening’s resignation and ‘read between the lines’ of her exit statement and thereby further explain her demise from the cabinet.

Having begun the job in July 2016, Greening quickly gained allies among teachers, academics and unions. Speaking after her resignation, Geoff Barton (General Secretary for the Association of School and College Leaders) praised her attempts to tackle key issues such as the ‘school funding crisis’, ‘social mobility’ and particularly admired her ability to develop education policy ‘on the basis of evidence’. Similar statements of praise have also been offered by other education pontiffs such the Director of the Institute of Education, Becky Francis and the General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), Mary Bousted – indicating the potential unpopularity of Theresa May’s reshuffle.

However, the former education minister had had a tough 2017 in the Department of Education. As suggested in her resignation statement, Greening hoped to prioritise education policies that focussed on promoting ‘social mobility’ – improving the ‘equality of opportunities’ nationally and thus enabling children to achieve better educational qualifications, income levels, living opportunities and working conditions than their parents. In an address to the Sutton Trust in July 2017, Greening declared social mobility to be the ‘guiding mission’ of the Department for Education. Yet by the end of 2017, Greening’s noble crusade seemed to be failing.

Beginning in June, the government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC) released its fourth annual report entitled ‘Time for Change: an Assessment of Government Policies on  Social Mobility 1997-2017’. Unsurprisingly, this report was particularly critical of government action, illustrating an ever growing educational ‘attainment gap’ between the children of less-well-off children and their wealthier classmates. Additionally, the SMC provided a further stab to Greening’s back with the publication of their final annual report: ‘State of the Nation’. Here, the authors’ held little back, using a ‘social mobility index’ (16 indicators of social mobility) to rank government policy in a number of key areas. Using this scale, the researchers found a significant geographical divide determining future prospects for school children. This, they concluded, put chances for social mobility down to a ‘postcode lottery’ – a quite damning conclusion in the light of Greening’s ‘guiding mission’.

Nevertheless, the ‘most unkindest cut of all’ came in December of 2017. Here, just to drive their point home, the entire Social Mobility Commission handed in their resignations to Justine Greening in protest over their findings in the aforementioned reports. Appearing later on the Andrew Marr Show, Alan Milburn (chair of the SMC and the government’s so-called ‘social mobility Tsar’) cited a lack of ‘meaningful political action’ towards ‘healing social division’ as his motivations for leaving. Having played a key role in government policy under New Labour, David Cameron and Theresa May; Milburn’s move seemed like a watershed movement in social mobility policy and potentially implicated Greening’s demise.

However, in the light of the praise given to Greening by the Geoff Barton, Mary Bousted and Becky Francis mentioned earlier, Greening’s resignation was not simply due to the actions of the SMC. Francis, for instance, praised the former minister’s response to the SMC’s reports – the government’s ‘Social Mobility Action Plan’ – and went on to state that it would be ‘politically insensitive’ to remove Greening after the launch of the strategy. For many, Greening had done particularly well in the face of significant government cuts, winning an £1.3 billion for schools back in the summer.

Instead, one could explain Greening’s fall from grace by illustrating the growing rift between her and the Prime Minister. In an article for The Telegraph, former chief of staff to Theresa May Nick Timothy claimed ‘despite report to the contrary, Greening was unpopular with officials’, ‘frustrated reformers’ and ‘exasperated the Prime Minister’. Additionally, The Independent reported that the former education minister ‘had been attacked for not being as loyal to Ms May as others and not being on the same wavelength as her over her education reforms’. 

Reading between the lines, Greening had reportedly had a number of disagreements with Theresa May and her policy team. For example, in July 2016 it was widely rumoured that Greening was ‘sceptical of the prime minister’s flagship plan for more grammar schools, despite publicly supporting the policy’. Tellingly, after the Conservatives’ poor showing at the 2017 general election, May’s Grammar School pledge disappeared from the agenda. According to Nick Timothy, Greening was putting ‘brakes on policies that work’ – an interesting claim in the face of the Common’s Select Committee for Education’s damning report on the prospects of new Grammar Schools. For the ATL’s Mary Bousted, ‘where Greening fell foul of Theresa May was in her determination not to impose yet more barmy education policies… dreamt up by the Number 10 policy unit’. Clearly, there was a difference in approaches between May and Greening.

Looking to the future, the Prime Minister’s reshuffle may have some undesired consequences. Having won only a narrow victory in the last general election whilst representing an overwhelmingly remain-voting constituency, Greening may prove quite a handful on the backbenches. In her first speech since leaving the front bench, the former education minister made an important intervention during the EU withdrawal bill, noting that ‘if Brexit doesn't work for young people in our country in the end it will not be sustainable’. Having campaigned for remain in the referendum, Greening may prove a tough adversary given May’s tiny majority in the House of Commons – but ultimately, only time will tell.

Sources and Further Reading

Image: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development @ Flickr

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