Justine Greening is, after William Hague, the second Rotherham-born politician to make it to the Cabinet in recent times. As Education Secretary, her outlook is shaped by her formative years at a secondary school in the town. Tom Richmond reports.
Justine Greening is stopped in the school corridor by a student asking for a selfie. “Of course,” replies the Education Secretary with cheery good humour before the obligatory pose. Then other pupils hurriedly join the impromptu line-up. “They never want a selfie with me!” quips headteacher David Naisbitt. Happy with the group picture on the mobile phone, the students say “thank you” and head off to their lessons with a spring in their step.
And so, too, does Greening as she returns to London. “It’s been way too much fun,” she tells The Yorkshire Post.
She means it. This has been no ordinary ministerial visit. The Secretary of State has just spent the morning revisiting Oakwood High School, the impressive Rotherham comprehensive that inspired her career in economics, business and now politics.
The first member of her family to attend university, Greening is immensely proud of her South Yorkshire roots, forged at the time of industrial strife and the Miners’ Strike, after making history by becoming the first Education Secretary to have been taught at a comprehensive school.
Appointed in July last year when Theresa May became Prime Minister, she describes the role as not only “the best job” in government but the “most important” because the future of young people hinges on her decisions and passionate desire to bring about “equality of opportunity for all”.
“I’m someone who will never forget my heritage and the part of the country that built me. That’s what I take into work every day,” says the bubbly 48-year-old.
The personable politician who charmed Oakwood students by talking to pupils at the opening of new buildings, far removed from her school days, could not be more different from the small, shy and diffident youngster who walked through the gates in September 1980 for the first time.
Little did she envisage returning as Education Secretary. It was not easy. She had few friends – her primary school class-mates lived in a different catchment area – but she admits that she was fortunate to have teachers who created a lasting impression, not least during a successful career in accounting before entering Parliament in 2005.
“Mr Tranter was my French teacher. He was just a brilliant teacher. He was one of those teachers who was so good at teaching you French that, by the time I turned up literally 10 years later not having done any French in the intervening period when my role moved to Switzerland for two years, I could just remember a huge amount,” she says.
“He made classes incredibly funny. You can imagine teaching French to some boys in Rotherham and trying to get them to do the right accent is no mean feat, but he was brilliant at it.”
As she reminisces, she demonstrates how Mr Tranter kept his pupils’ attention. “He would start writing on the blackboard. He would plant his feet and hang onto this blackboard and gradually go at more and more of angle as he went right to the end.
“When I got this brilliant role that I adore, of course, he wrote to me saying ‘Hi, Justine, I remember you sat at the front.’ He said you won’t remember me but, of course, no one forgets a great teacher.”
She thinks she achieved a Grade A at O-Level in French, though she can’t remember her results. She knows her German exam was “a disaster” because the oral test was on the same day as French and she couldn’t switch between the two.
All that matters was that the grades were good enough to secure a place down the road at Thomas Rotherham College before a chance conversation with a careers adviser piqued her interest in economics – her academic vocation at Southampton University – and changed the course of her life.
“I was doing maths and physics [A-Levels] definitely and then the careers teacher said to me ‘what else are you interested in?’ I really remember it clearly. ‘I don’t know. Current affairs?’ I said. He said I might like economics. I was already interested in business and thought this business world looks interesting and exciting. I’ll do economics. That turned out to be the thing I was really good at.”
The first to admit that “we’ve got to do much better on careers advice” so the futures of children are not left to chance, Greening had no hankering at Oakwood to become a politician. “My main ambition was to have a good job and a good career,” she says.
Times were challenging. Her father Paddy had been made redundant by British Steel and his subsequent job, loading vending machines, meant he had to cross picket lines during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.
“You have to remember as children you’ve only got your version of normal so I didn’t really know what it was like to be growing up anywhere else,” she says. “That was a tough but this is a town with a huge heart and amazing spirit. No one in my family was involved in politics and my first experience of politics in Rotherham was not a good one. I was surrounded by very hard left Militant Labour people. For me, people like Jeremy Corbyn were the establishment which I clearly rebelled against.”
Fortunate to have a school that shared her love of sport – she still follows Rotherham United’s fortunes – Greening is almost giddy with excitement as she recalls swimming lessons.
“I was a swimmer and joined Rotherham Metro which had just been set up by two new coaches who had turned up in the area called Bill and Fred Furniss. This is Bill Furniss of Rebecca Adlington fame. Back in the 80s, they were just getting going,” she says.
“I remember going home and my dad saying there was this new swimming club. ‘Yeah, that will be great’, I said. Off I went, that taught me about persistence, resilience and just keeping on going even when things get a lot harder.
“I used to swim in the Yorkshires, but I didn’t really have the physique to be Olympic standard.”
Greening speaks adoringly about her mother Julia and late father. “Paddy, he had a great life, a good life,” says the minister who credits Oakwood with instilling the values that motivate her today as Education Secretary and also Minister for Women and Equalities.
“Oakwood was a big stepping stone, but I think it did more than that. It was a very mixed school then and I think it taught me a lot more about life because, actually, I was part of a very diverse and broad school community. I think it helped teach me about why inclusion matters, and tolerance. I think it was one of the first times I ever felt something was unacceptable, and almost maybe tapped into the person who would go on to represent people.
“It was my first year and I was this little person in the photo. I was really small, I think I was the shortest girl in the year, one of these micro kids. I was waiting in the corridor in the queue outside the stockroom to get a new textbook. I remember seeing one of the Asian kids just above me being thrown out by some white kids, and I felt really upset for him because I thought it was completely unfair and unacceptable.
“I was so small and I was so new that I felt helpless actually and that really stayed with me. I’ve never been willing to accept inequality like that.
“What matters is who people actually are and what they want to make of themselves and whether they’re willing to be a constructive, positive part of a bigger community and treat the people around them with some respect and kindness. That was how I was brought up.”
Greening had no plans to become a politician when her career as an accountant saw her move from Switzerland to London. She became involved with her local Conservative party and “things spiralled out of control” before she was elected to represent Putney in 2005.
Describing herself as a “people person” which is self-evident with her interaction, she’s a woman on a mission. “I passionately believe every country’s greatest asset is its people and I have a role that can help build up our people and be the best versions of themselves.”
As Justine Greening bade farewell to the “selfie” students, she left Oakwood High School hoping that these eager pupils will, in time, follow her example and perhaps, one day, become a Cabinet minister.
Or even Prime Minister...