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Liz Truss has seen the future, and according to her it works. On Tuesday this junior education minister regaled readers of the Daily Telegraph with an ecstatic account of her visit to China, to study that country’s methods of teaching mathematics:
“By age 16, the average pupil in Shanghai is three years ahead of ours in maths. Their poorest pupils are a full year ahead of our richest. Shanghai sits confidently at the top of the OECD’s maths tables. It is sometimes claimed that this comes at the price of creativity. Yesterday, the Society of Heads warned – based on the findings of a survey of pupils – that the Government’s drive for academic rigour risked crushing the joy of learning. The shorthand was clear: better free spirits than automatons. Yet if you actually visit these classrooms, the hackneyed stereotypes of rote learning and mindless procedure – of ranks of children chanting identical answers – are completely absent. The teachers aren’t authoritarian – they’re friendly and professional. In every lesson I saw, the children were excited to be there, answering questions and rushing up to the blackboard to explain their solution to the rest of the class.”
Truss wants us to learn from China to correct deep-seated errors in our own attitudes to education:
“Even entertaining the idea that maths doesn’t matter would be ridiculous to the parents, pupils and professionals I met in China. There was not a trace of our inverted snobbery – no one admitted proudly that they were ‘no good at maths’. For most universities, it is a basic entry requirement. Young people see it as the means to a better future, at the heart of the competitive, tech-driven global economy.”
A teacher at a British comprehensive school expressed a degree of scepticism about Truss’s belief that the best aspects of foreign systems can be transported here:
“First Germany was the admired country (good vocational education), then Japan (high average standards, economic success), then it was Finland and Sweden and now it is Shanghai. Politicians tend to look at superficial features of overseas systems and try to apply lessons in a mechanistic way. In the 80s, Japan’s apparent rise to global dominance meant that Japanese education must be good. The Tories copied the one feature of Japanese education which was in fact least appealing to most thoughtful Japanese – their testing. The very feature which has made Japan less inventive, less creative than the Americans (who were thought to be in terminal decline) was the one copied. As for China, the first thing to state is that according to a recent report on the BBC, they cheat on a monumental scale: the children of working-class immigrants to Shanghai have to be sent back home to be educated, and only the middle-class, aspiring ones are likely to get Shanghai residence cards and be included in the PISA study. Of Chinese ambition, especially in the one-child family, there is no doubt and they are producing a large number of brilliant students. But proclaiming this to British teachers is unlikely to produce significant change. Liz Truss should resist the temptation, the fantasy that there are levers she can pull. Robust self-reliance, not slavish imitation, should be the rule.”
But this was one of the few criticisms of Truss which I heard while writing this profile. For according to many Tories, she is herself the future. Astute judges predict that she is one of the women who are most likely to be promoted in the reshuffle which is expected after the European elections.
As one Tory put it, “David Cameron will need to massage the Right, and she’s certainly of the Right. She could replace David Willetts [Minister of State for Universities and Science], who I’m told believes he’s on the way out.”
A senior backbench Tory, who does not refrain from criticising colleagues when he thinks they deserve it, said of Truss: “Almost alone among ministers at the moment, she is someone who actually has real conviction. She is very clearly driven by a need to improve maths and general educational achievement in schools.”
Truss is the MP for South-West Norfolk: an East Anglian connection which inspired this backbencher to quote Oliver Cromwell’s remark about “the plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows”, and to claim that it applies to her.
But Truss herself is not from East Anglia. She was born in 1975, went to primary school in Paisley, near Glasgow, and then moved to Leeds, where she attended Roundhay School, a comprehensive.
Her parents were left-wing: her father a professor of pure mathematics, while her mother was a teacher and a member of CND. She has recounted, in an interview with Rafael Behr of the New Statesman, how she herself was taken as a child on CND marches, and reacted against her school’s tolerance of underperformance from pupils and staff: “What I observed was that being a bad teacher didn’t mean you got kicked out of the school and a lot of children were let down by the low expectations teachers had of them.”
Her own experience informs her wider view of what has gone wrong:
“We have failed over the past 40 years to educate people well and that has been a major cause of our social mobility problems. What is the reason a lot of professions are full of people who have been educated at public school and who have come from the top of society? That’s the legacy of failed education policy in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.”
Truss herself did not fail. She did double maths at A level and won a place to read PPE at Merton College, Oxford, where she became president of the university’s Liberal Democrats, before realising she is a Conservative.
So she joined the Tories and as well as getting jobs with Shell and then Cable and Wireless, and in due course getting married and having two children, she became active within the party.
For Truss is not the kind of person who sits around wondering what to do next. She is a woman of action. I have never met her, but can understand why she reminds people of Margaret Thatcher. For like Thatcher, she works immensely hard, is determined (in Truss’s words) “to get my own way”, and lacks any trace of the defeatism which used to be endemic among our political class. Truss served as chairman of Lewisham Deptford Conservative Association, parliamentary candidate in Hemsworth in 2001, parliamentary candidate in Calder Valley in 2005 (which she nearly won), and from 2006 as a local councillor in Greenwich.
She was put on the Tories’ A list of candidates and in October 2009 gained selection for the safe seat of South-West Norfolk. But Truss then hit trouble. A prominent newspaper report conveyed to Norfolk Conservatives the news, already known at Westminster, that some years before she had had an affair with Mark Field, MP for Cities of London and Westminster.
A number of Norfolk Conservatives attempted to get Truss deselected. They objected to having an outsider foisted on them. One of the rebels, Sir Jeremy Bagge, pointed out that “my family have lived here in Norfolk since 800 AD”. He and others were dubbed “the Turnip Taliban”. The press was entranced by what looked like a direct challenge to Cameron’s modernisation programme.
This must have been a gruelling battle for Truss. But it was also an opportunity for her to demonstrate toughness under fire. She won through and has since become well established in Norfolk.
At Westminster she was soon identified as one of the most promising members of the 2010 intake. As the senior backbencher quoted above put it:
“Many of the new batch are seen to be grotesquely over-promoted. No one says that about Liz Truss. Not one. And that in a way is the highest compliment you can get. She has a natural authority that other men and women do not have. She’s not a softy southerner. She’s a northerner. She’s a meritocrat. She went to a northern comprehensive. She’s a Conservative not by birth but by conviction. She’s thought it through. The phrase ‘conviction politician’ is not much used these days, mainly because we don’t have any. She manifestly is an incredibly adept media performer. She looks normal, which is unusual for a Tory politician. She conveys strength and normalcy.”
Some might say that Truss’s use of language is too normal. The expressions she uses – “fit for purpose”, “the global race”, “a world-class system” – are flat and dull. But the way she uses them is anything but dull. Her articles for ConservativeHome about the need for “a childcare revolution” and for “childcare French-style” are good examples of her determination to apply the logic of free-market economics to social problems.
The result is an almost chilling pragmatism: chilling, that is, if you are an ineffectual man, who takes the view that nothing much can be done about long-standing difficulties. Nick Clegg has recently stymied Truss’s plans for cheaper childcare, but one can be sure she will return to the subject if and when the Tories are no longer dependent on the Lib Dems.
Nigel Lawson once observed: “A key to understanding Mrs Thatcher was that she actually said what she believed.” The same could be said of Truss. This is one reason why some Tories see her as a future leader. Seldom have I heard a junior minister so praised by colleagues, including those who have not yet been offered ministerial posts.
It should be added that Truss has not yet acquired much experience: she only got her present job in September 2012. One backbencher described her as “good, but not yet the finished article”.
But one of Truss’s strengths is that she so plainly enjoys politics. She is not forcing herself to be so energetic: it is her natural game. A woman who knows her recently expressed the hope that Truss would not follow the example of some other Tory women who have decided to leave politics.
Truss replied: “God, they’d have to take me out in a box.”