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Will Justine Greening's 'social mobility action plan' answer education policy's many outstanding questions?

Social mobility is the number-one priority for the education secretary – but as she finalises plans to set out her policy stall, will it provide the vision that her supporters hope for?

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Social mobility is the number-one priority for the education secretary – but as she finalises plans to set out her policy stall, will it provide the vision that her supporters hope for?

When is a green paper not a green paper? When the government doesn’t have a majority, can’t legislate but does want to set out its policy plans in one document.

Ergo, we wait patiently for Justine Greening’s Social Mobility Green Paper Action Plan. It has been trailed (very lightly) as the document that will release the education secretary from her reputation as a functional – high-performing – bureaucrat and show the world that she truly has a vision for schools and universities as engines of social change.

It is, I understand, hoped that it will pull together various policy strands that to a lesser or greater extent have already been unveiled. Expect to see much talk of the Opportunity Areas, T levels, the Careers Strategy (which is imminent, too), the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund and teacher CPD. Expect a lot about skills in post-Brexit Britain, too, of course.

Tackling social mobility

Opinion is divided as to whether we will see this new document revealed this side of Christmas or in the new year, but whether it’s next week or next January, there are a few questions it really must attempt to tackle:

  • Will there be an over-arching arc, setting out an agenda and philosophy for Justine Greening as education secretary? Or will it all sound a bit like managerialism?
  • If there is, will it tie this vision into the government’s recent industrial strategy for a “booming” post-Brexit Britain?
  • What will it say about free schools? Justine Greening appears to be less than lukewarm about the Michael Gove’s pet policy? But to what extent will she attempt to bury it?
  • What will it say about independent schools and universities being forced to work with the state sector? The government’s misplaced enthusiasm for this policy hasn’t gone away, but to what extent will it be prepared to strong-arm those famously recalcitrant sectors into doing its bidding?
  • What will it say about grammar schools? Theresa May’s plans to allow schools throughout the England to select may have been killed off by the botched general election, but the appetite for the policy hasn’t gone away. We are, of course, still officially awaiting a government response to the consultation Schools That Work For Everyone green paper.
  • Will the Opportunity Area policy be stretched or expanded? It’s no secret that the North East was particularly miffed to miss out on the funding and attention. Will its demands – and the demands of others to get a share of the cash – be answered?
  • Will it have anything to add to teacher training and teacher supply? Her schools minister might not like admitting there’s a crisis, but Greening’s people do understand that there’s a very real problem with recruitment and retention: one that often maps quite precisely to those areas that she wants to transform into social mobility hot spots.


“I am focusing the wider work of my department on tackling that challenge of how we have successful place-based education strategy,” so said Ms Greening in a landmark speech at the Sutton Trust in July. “It is why I'm gearing my programmes and policies to lift up those parts of the country that can most benefit from improved education.”

Following on from this, there’s a lot riding on this non-green paper in terms of securing a direction of travel for Greening’s DfE. It’s a real opportunity for her to define herself as a transformative education secretary – one who really believes she can do something about the very real lack of social mobility that blights much of the country. But will she grab it?

Ed Dorrell is the head of content at Tes

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