Sunday thoughts: Is Liz Truss the ‘Education Prime Minister’?

Jonathan Simons
11 min readJul 31, 2022

A change to the published schedule for Sunday thoughts this week, to take account of (likely next PM) Liz Truss’ six point education plan released late on Saturday night, and her briefing that she wants to be ‘the Education Prime Minister’.

I want to offer some general reflections, as well as brief observations on each commitment in her plan. It’s likely that I’ll be writing more on the Oxbridge interview one in slower time, in particular. Given this is a very swift response, there’s bound to be lots of stuff I miss in my initial take below, so I reserve the right to do a Cummings and edit this quietly later on if it turns out I’ve said something stupid or to make me look prescient.

I said on Twitter on Saturday night that this is a fascinating list for a number of reasons, and I think it is. Firstly, and most parochially, it’s nice to see education in the headlines again, policy wise. I know not everyone will agree, and a lot in the sector across all phases just want a period of stability, but as I’ve long argued, stability often means less attention and less attention means less money. I also believe that reform doesn’t stop when a Secretary of State announces something — many of the reforms from as long ago as 2010 are still working their way through the system — and so it’s both legitimate, but also in the interests of good policymaking and effective implementation, for politicians to return to a theme.

Secondly, it’s interesting because it’s thought provoking. It’s a list which makes you consider each one carefully. Some people will be attracted to the whole lot (mostly, you would imagine, Conservative supporters), but there’s some stuff in here which is cross party, and some in here where people can say I like x, but I hate y. In other words, it leads to discussion, and further thought, and amendment and iteration. I like that.

And the third reason why it’s fascinating, is that a lot of this sits quite comfortably within what the Johnson administration was doing / can claim to be doing / was planning to do. For a candidate who has made much of her running on the message of “this country is so screwed, only I can fix it, when I catch up with the Cabinet and government that broke everything I’m going to be so mad”, this is an interesting position. I also personally think continuity is a good thing here. While I don’t agree with all her proposals — and can’t quite yet fully think how a couple of them would work — it does at least show a recognition that, broadly, the reforming approach since at least 2001, under 2nd term Blair, was the right one.

A brief word on the main objections. Yes, much of this would require more money — although by no means all of it. Yes, the headwinds in schools and early years providers and colleges and universities are strong. But as a vision for what a putative Truss government would want to do over say the next five to seven years, it’s well worth engaging with.

Looking at each one in a little more detail:

A guarantee that all students who achieve 3 A*s at A Level get an Oxbridge interview

I’d initially thought Truss meant all those predicted 3 A*s, as obviously a plan for mass interviewing on actual grades doesn’t work in the current system. But the wider briefing around this makes clear that Truss also wants to introduce Post Qualification Admissions. So in essence it’s a souped up PQA, with an added requirement that Oxbridge automatically invite for interview anyone who gets 3 A*s.

I love this. Really, really love it. Not coincidentally, I’ve been banging the drum for something similar for (gulp) fifteen years now, and I wrote about it briefly here. The segment it unlocks is not those who apply and who don’t get an interview (because, while I don’t think the process is without flaw, Oxbridge spend a huge amount of time trying to get this process right and, as the Deputy Head of Cambridge WP said last night, they already interview 75% of applicants). It would be changing the default so that young people with stellar grades wouldn’t need to actively apply.

Lots to work out here — some people who know admissions better than me say that HERA is a blocker to directing universities who to admit, or even to direct to this level of prescriptiveness, and some people think the Russell Group would rightly go mad that Oxbridge would have a unique access to the data and locations of the smartest young people in the country and first dibs at speaking to them. It’s also undeniably true that this would place a burden on Oxbridge in terms of volume of interviewing (pre Covid, 6k pupils a year got 3 A*s, and last year it was 12k, though you’d expect it to fall back towards 6k over the next few years). But none of this seems insurmountable. I also can’t stand the “these kids are not the focus, they’ll do fine anyway, especially with 3 A*s, they’ll probably just go to another good uni” objection. Yes, true. But come on, can you hear yourselves? If Liz Truss wants to stand for solving the issue of (mostly WP) kids getting good grades but feeling that Oxbridge isn’t for them — and in the face of at least some teachers aiding and abetting that misconception — then I’m strongly with her.

Unleashing a wave of new free schools and creating a new generation of grammar schools to replace failing schools and academies

A commitment of two halves here. Unsurprisingly, I very much like the new free schools announcement. This has been a flagship Conservative policy that has gradually been running out of steam, and a resurrection is a good thing. I particularly like the implication in here that at least some new free schools wouldn’t just be basic need — they’d be in areas which need greater choice and competition for parents and areas where standards are low. Again, the Johnson government can and will claim that the upcoming Wave 15 already does this — which is true — but the estimated wave size is so small this time round that it simply won’t offer options in other than a few carefully selected areas.

On the grammar proposal, I don’t have a lot to offer on the merits of selection at 11 as a standards raising idea beyond that which has been researched extensively elsewhere, including articles written from Conservative MPs. It’s also not that popular, getting less than 50% support even among Conservative voters. I’m also not convinced that offering a new grammar in a local ecosystem where there’s a failing 11–16 or 11–18 school is the correct prescription. I’d far rather here that the commitment would be a turbocharging of support for MATs to grow, for MAT expansion to take over failing schools, and for greater delegation of powers to those MATs, combined with a tidying up of the regulatory architecture around them. The Johnson plan to do this is one of the best bits of the recent White Paper. I have no reason to assume a Truss administration wouldn’t carry on with all of this, and indeed universal academisation as well, but it’s quite telling that academisation is one of the ‘A’ words that dare not speak its name in this list, along with ‘apprenticeships’.

The one other thing to note on grammars is that any new wave couldn’t happen before a General Election in 2024 with it being in the manifesto and (obviously) the Tories then winning. Although I’d initially thought a Truss government could amend the Schools Bill when it comes to the Commons in the Autumn, I’d forgotten that the Lords would need to once again agree to any Commons amendments, even though they’ve already passed the Bill themselves. I suspect grammar school clauses wouldn’t pass the Lords as currently constituted, the constitutional precedent for the Commons as the supreme chamber able to bounce the Lords is dubious given this is a new mid term commitment (albeit the government will argue that the leadership campaign is the closest thing to a Truss manifesto, so her statements during it should carry the same weight), and there isn’t enough time for the Commons to pass a Parliament Act forcing it through before an election.

A laser like focus on literacy and numeracy to deliver on the target of 90% of primary children leaving school with the expected standard

I really like this one. Properly cross party, as well. I suppose the two biggest critiques of it are a) if wishing made it so (see also “I’ll reduce crime by 20% by telling the police they have to do it”) and b) where’s the money. Both of which are entirely fair.

The reason I like it though, other than it being clearly A Good Thing To Happen, is that I take ‘a laser like focus’ to mean ‘I recognise DfE have to do more here’. The power of Prime Ministerial priorities is that budgets, and civil service time, and political capital, all align behind them. I don’t quite know what the levers are yet to systematically raise literacy and numeracy not by a bit, but by 25 percentage points — and there’s a huge amount of financial and social headwinds meaning in truth, this target will be almost impossible to hit — but even if we read it as “I will not lose focus on one of the most important policy and political things in education which is a focus on core standards, standards, standards”, it’s hard to not approve here.

Reviewing the imbalance between funding subsidized university fees for poor quality degree courses and high quality vocational training

This is Interesting. Interesting, Interesting. Thought provoking too. Politics wise, it’s very easy to see how it flies — I’ve lost track of the number of focus groups and the like where people have said something like this is a good thing.

Policy wise I’ve been thinking a lot about this one since last night around how you do it. I think there’s two ways, but I’m definitely not sure about either. The first is that this is done through the proposed LLE — a unified loan system for both university and vocational training — and the quantum for students is identical whichever route they take. So you would be able to access tuition support, and crucially maintenance support, whether you went to university or did a ‘high quality vocational training’ offer. This could allow a mushrooming of high quality, high cost, residential vocational training offers to emerge.

But actually, I think more what is in Team Truss mind is going after the various other elements of funding that flow to the provider in HE, and taking some of those back. This is far more tricky, firstly because there aren’t that many state subsidies directly to the provider unless the low quality course is a STEM one, and secondly because funding doesn’t tend to be allocated to a particular course in the same way. In effect, what this would look like would be a continuation of the plan where DfE / OfS identify low quality courses, prohibit universities from putting them on or accessing student loan support for doing them, but rather than just accepting fungibility in the student loan system from users and in the various grants for providers, and universities just closing courses and recalibrating their offer, the government would actually take some funding out of the system because there are now “fewer courses” available. And in turn, presumably, cap student numbers — while funnelling that money, and some of those students, into high quality vocational training.

My head hurts a little thinking about this one. I think there’s a germ of something really useful in here, and I don’t accept the caviling of some in the sector that we shouldn’t be more concerned about quality. But the DfE and OfS have just published a whole beast of a set of consultation responses on this (200,000 words!), and it’s unbelievably complex. This agenda would take up almost all of the new HE Minister’s time. Not necessary a bad thing. But not simple.

Bringing the childcare ratios in line with Scotland so that the number of children over the age of two that can be looked after by an adult is increased from four to five

Much like it’s not an REM concert till the opening bars of Everybody Hurts, it’s not a Truss education list without childcare ratios.

Honestly, I don’t know enough about this one to judge. I know Truss is determined it’s a thing, and has been ever since she was junior childcare Minister almost a decade ago. I know the sector hates it. Neither of these data points gives me confidence to pick a side. It’s also easy to say “it’s small beer here, what we really need is universal childcare entitlement on the demand side, and some cool ideas for managing providers on the supply side.” But….that is what I think.

Wait for Sam Freedman’s published report on childcare in the Autumn, which is looking at both of those, and that’ll probably be better (but also probably very expensive).

A greater choice and flexibility over childcare, enabling parents to use their entitlements at a wider range of providers, including support around the school day.

This, I like very much. Before and after school care is one of those hidden bits of the VCS sector, like the RNLI, where you think “why on earth can’t I use some of my tax entitlements, or they have easier access to state funding, to help make this a bit less hand to mouth”? I’m assuming that within this proposal is more and better tax free childcare support for grandparent care (also a long time Truss bugbear and favorite of a lot of the centre right think tanks), a desire to have greater flexibility over using tax free childcare over a number of different providers, and more transference of tax allowances between working and non working parents. There’s also been idea floating around think tank circles for a while around a single childcare account — structured similarly to student loans, and other personal accounts for those with some chronic health conditions — which would grant users greater control and flexibility over purchasing childcare in small chunks, from a wider range of registered providers (including wrap around childcare based in schools).

If we could get to some form of extended schools, funded by a combination of DfE funding, out of pocket parental payment, and better targeted tax allowances through a single account — and supported by a rejuvenated set of third sector providers using school buildings to deliver it— that would be a truly outstanding outcome.

So on balance, at least 4 strong ideas here. The big thing that is missing for me is a more positive story to tell on growth and innovation, and indeed social mobility, in HE and science. It’s worth noting too that earlier in the contest, Damian Hinds and Nick Gibb wrote a piece endorsing Sunak and his education plan, which I thought at the time was one of the most thoughtful contributions during the MP stage of voting — and I still like the Sunak overall vision more so than the Truss plan (not least it only expands existing grammars, it is more focussed on core curricular knowledge, and it has more hints as to the role of education as a driver of growth). Whoever wins, there’s a lot to be gained here through an amalgamation of both sets of ideas.

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