Luke Tryl is Director of More in Common. He is a former Director of the New Schools Network, Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and a former Special Adviser.
I sometimes end focus groups by asking participants for one word they’d use to describe Britain in 2022. It won’t surprise readers to know that in recent months the overwhelming answer back has been ‘shambles’ and its synonyms. Passport delays, waiting lists, and strikes have all combined to give the sense the state has simply stopped working. And that is of course without mentioning the cost-of-living crisis overshadowing all else.
However, with politics restarting following the end of the mourning period, this is not another column about the breadth and severity of issues Liz Truss faces in her in-tray. Instead, I want to look to look at what is going right and what the new administration can learn from it – because it turns out when you dig under the bonnet of Government, there have been rather more things going well in recent months than you might assume
The first is in education. Price rises aren’t the only type of inflation this Government has been grappling with, there’s grade inflation too. After two years of cancelled exams and qualification results based on teacher assessments grades shot up. This year the Government had to start the process of bringing them back down. As with Government handouts, once you’ve started the process of giving higher grades, taking them back is challenging, and many, myself included, weren’t confident the Department for Education was going to be able to do it.
And yet GCSE and A-Level results days passed more smoothly than I can remember. Overall grades came down and the Government seems to have struck the right balance in allowing students leeway to make up for lost learning during the pandemic. How did they do it? What changed after the fiasco of recent years? Most importantly it seems Nadhim Zahawi, the then Education Secretary, took the delivery mindset he’d applied to the vaccine roll out to making sure this year’s exam process went as smoothly. That approach was picked up by his successor James Cleverly and both worked closely with the regulator Ofqual, now under the superb leadership of Jo Saxton, someone who knows the education system inside out.
But quiet successes haven’t just been happening in education. Although the health service faces many challenges as it recovers from Covid, the early success of our vaccine roll out has continued and, as a result, the UK became the first country in the world this summer to approve a dual vaccine to tackle both the original Covid virus and the Omicron variant. Just a couple of weeks ago we announced we had approved another, setting us up well for the winter booster campaign.
What about levelling up – the apparent core mission of the Johnson government? There’s no doubt that the policy still has a long way to go if it is to realise the full potential outlined in this year’s White Paper, but progress is happening. While it was assumed that most of Whitehall would enjoy a quiet caretaker summer that clearly wasn’t Greg Clark’s vision. Picking up the baton from Michael Gove, the Department opened a further round of the Levelling Up Fund (which, reports suggest, might be heavily oversubscribed, pointing to the level of ambition in our towns and cities), and announced not one but two more devolution deals covering York and North Yorkshire and the East Midlands. As a result, an additional three million people will now have the chance to elect a ‘Metro Mayor’ and millions of pounds will be devolved from Westminster to local communities.
Then there’s Universal Credit. There will no doubt be a debate about whether and by how much the level of benefits needs to rise by to meet the challenge of rising energy prices (even with the cap), but there is no doubt that the administration of the benefit system has improved dramatically in recent years. Whereas, prior to the pandemic, stories of real hardship caused by delays and misadministration were common in focus groups, they have now largely faded away. Ask those in the know why, and they’ll tell you that in no small part these improvements have been driven by the no nonsense approach that Therese Coffey championed as Work and Pension Secretary. Truss will no doubt be hoping she takes the same approach at the Department for Health.
Finally, Ukraine. While we do not know what the outcome of Russia’s invasion will be, and root for Ukraine’s victory, what is clear is that the conflict has seen Britain step up on the world stage. The British public may have fallen out of love with Boris Johnson, but his work, and that of Liz Truss and Ben Wallace, is cheered on the streets of Kiev. That Britain has not just delivered for Ukraine itself, but cajoled our allies on both sides of the Atlantic to do their bit, no doubt played a significant role in getting the country the resources it needed to launch the fight back of recent weeks. What’s more, our role in the conflict has debunked for good any notion that post-Brexit Britain would retreat to becoming a little England.
None of this is meant to be Pollyannish- there is no doubt large areas of the state are currently quite simply failing to deliver for the public and Truss’s team have their work cut out getting them back in shape. But nor does it help to only focus on the negatives – because there is a lesson to be learned from what is working well and why. More than anything else, the one thing that seems to unite the successes listed here has been Ministers taking a laser like focus on delivery. As new Cabinet members start to outline their priorities over the next week, they would do well to think about how they will do the same.