Tim Leunig, the brains behind some of the biggest education policies of the past decade, knows that some of the opinions he’ll be sharing in his new role as an FE Week columnist will raise some eyebrows. But he has never been shy about courting controversy.
We meet at Westminster Abbey, where Leunig gives me a tour of its memorials to the people who have created ripples on the tide of British history, before we sit down to discuss the ripples that Leunig himself has created over the years.
The setting enables him to indulge in his love of history and politics. He has just stepped down after 25 years as an associate professor in economic history at the London School of Economics. He is a director at the policy and research consultancy Public First and has just started as chief economist at the centre-right think-tank Onward.
But it is the 12 years which Leunig spent as a senior civil servant that I am interested in.
The weirdo and misfit
Not only has he advised Number 10 and the Treasury, but Leunig was the DfE’s joint chief analyst and later chief scientific adviser, becoming a close ally of Michael Gove, Nick Gibb and Dominic Cummings. Lib Dem leader Ed Davey is an “old friend” who lives around the corner.
Like Cummings, Leunig puts others to shame with his vast grey matter and is unafraid to stand out from the crowd. He meets me donned in a high-vis vest (though he didn’t cycle here).
He agrees with Cummings’ infamous remark that the government needs more “weirdos and misfits”. “We need more people willing to tell us how it is.”
Did he feel able do that as a civil servant? “Yes. Dom and I disagreed respectively. He was much better working at DfE than Number 10.”
When Leunig left the Treasury in 2022, Cummings praised him for giving “honest advice without any of the normal courtier dynamics so ubiquitous and poisonous” in Westminster. His departure was “another sign this Downing Street is pointless”.
Someone in government was perhaps listening, as Leunig spent the next year in advisory roles spanning the departments of health (including on mental health issues), education and housing, as well as Downing Street.
Plasma TV outrage
These days, Leunig may receive a less warm welcome in Liverpool than Westminster. In 2008 he sparked outrage by saying that money spent there on regeneration “should have been used to buy plasma televisions” after co-authoring a report arguing that the North is “less desirable” for business.
Leunig called for more housebuilding in the South, because “you cannot move Canary Wharf to Liverpool”.
He claims that every OECD country has a population “moving south”, because “people prefer to be somewhere warmer and drier” and dismisses suggestions that global warming might change that. “It’s hard to believe London will be so hot that people think, ‘let’s move to Newcastle’.”
Leunig blames high house prices for hindering those in deprived northern areas from moving to London, or indeed Medway in Kent, where he grew up.
Leunig had a relatively modest upbringing. His father left soon after he started primary school, his mother did shop work and similar, and the accent which he admits can sound “rather posh” is a result of being taught to overpronounce syllables to cure a speech impediment.
Despite only getting a B in his A-level history and a C in further maths, Leunig got a first in modern history and economics at Oxford and is now a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He believes he was “unlucky” with his history A-level and that history exams, like driving tests, are “valid but not reliable” due to the discretion involved in the assessment. “The same is true of Ofsted.”
He uses the example of Ofsted coming in on a day when “three of your best teachers are ill”.
“Ofsted is supposed to be a valid judgment, but that comes at the expense of reliability. So, the question is, what do you do with that judgment?”
‘The greatest privilege of my life’
While Leunig was a Treasury adviser from 2019 to 2022, hiseconomic argument appeared to have lost out to Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda which saw money pouring into regenerating the North.
But that is not to say that Leunig’s ideas didn’t have a big impact at Number 11.
A few months before Covid, he became curious about how the German government helped to fund the furloughing of a company’s staff when a problem was impacting its industry. Leunig had this “at the back of my mind” so, when Sunak asked, “what to do to prevent mass unemployment” when Covid hit, “I had an answer”.
Leunig believes UK unemployment would have hit four million in a similar fashion to how it spiked in the US post-lockdowns without furlough. He says: “Being part of something that saved three million jobs is likely to be the greatest privilege of my life.”
But, while the scheme “worked perfectly for large firms”, he admits that “some small firms behaved very oddly”. “We can be pretty sure that, when Ikea furloughed someone, they were at home not working. That was much less clear for firms with only a single employee – particularly if they were a family member.”
Leunig has been unafraid to court controversy over the years because he will say “what I think is true”. But he will change his mind when his “understanding of the facts changes”.
“That’s why people have me as a columnist – a columnist needs to create a mailbag.”
But at the DfE, he could only react to what he was told. As chief scientific adviser between 2014 and 2017, he was not informed about the risks of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
He is “surprised that no local authority mentioned RAAC” at the time, because “they employ structural engineers”.
He points out that Heathrow and Gatwick airports both contain RAAC but, “because they maintain their buildings much better than the state maintains its schools, they have absolutely no problem”.
Aside from crumbly concrete, Leunig is concerned about deteriorating mental health among girls.
He believes that “the standard argument” that “boys fall out, punch each other, hug and get on with life” while girls are “catty and backstabbing” has “always been true, but now social media has taken them to another level”.
He points to evidence from the US that the “satisfaction with life” of 12th graders dropped dramatically in 2012 with the advent of smartphones, while their satisfaction with parents rose, rebutting arguments that family tensions were to blame for their angst. “People need to know this,” he adds.
When it comes to the curriculum, there was “virtually nothing” in terms of maths-favouring policies that crossed his DfE desk that Leunig did not “put a big smiley face and a double tick on”.
He believes that maths skills will be essential in our future AI-driven economy because maths teaches a “way of thinking that is structured and not intuitive”.
He recalls a report from the 1970s which found that the Germans had a “productivity advantage” over us when it came to installing kitchens, “because they knew more maths”. That is apparently because, unlike us, the Germans use “angles” and the “Sine Law” so they can draw and cut holes in units before they are installed.
“There are not many people who find maths easy as children – maths is hard. When you’ve conquered it, you’ve gained a skill and a sense of logic that lasts you a lifetime.”
Leunig’s proposals for the Advanced British Standard qualification for which most students will study at least five subjects at either “major” or “minor” levels, including maths and English, have prompted controversy. The name has been derided because of the other unfortunate connotations of “BS”.
Leunig reveals how Nick Gibb had at one time proposed instead for it to be called ACE – Advanced Certificate in Education.
Some people fear that making maths mandatory will put young people off post-16 education altogether, and question its feasibility given that the education sector is already struggling to recruit maths teachers. Leunig believes the solution is to pay them more, to “out-compete other employers”.
He sees the problem as being that England has “lots of graduate careers” for maths graduates, whereas Finland does “quite well” when it comes to education because of the lack of alternative graduate jobs there.
Labour is proposing to prioritise primary rather than post-16 maths, but Leunig believes “there’s no reason” why it should not focus on boosting maths skills for both primary and post-16 cohorts.
He concedes that colleges are currently struggling under the weight of young people arriving there without maths and English GCSEs. “It is true” that maths retakes “have not worked in the way” that was intended.
“That’s why we need to get maths right at primary.”
Stopping sixth forms
Leunig is not shy of criticising schools when it comes to post-16. He welcomes how the Baker clause gave colleges the right to “come into schools and try and recruit students”, but questions whether schools have really “done anything differently” in recent years to champion apprenticeships.
Leunig believes the 11 to 16 budget should be ring-fenced within schools to prevent the “unfair competition” some schools have created with colleges by creating new sixth forms.
He sees scope for the government to make savings by stopping the “huge cross-subsidies” some schools are making to their sixth forms.
Government data shows the number of schools with sixth forms rose 4 per cent from 1,959 to 2,039 in the year 2018-19, although it has dropped by 2 per cent since.
Leunig believes that “a lot of academies now create sixth forms because it impresses parents. It makes it easier to recruit teachers… but many of these are very small and inefficient.”
He questions whether there is evidence for the argument some heads make that having a sixth form can have an aspirational effect on its younger pupils. “If you take Cambridge, virtually no school there has a sixth form… does it really have an aspiration problem? I doubt it.”
Heart in FE
Leunig counts himself “pretty lucky” to have served under relatively long-standing ministers and secretaries of state at DfE such as Gibb and Gove, and credits skills minister Robert Halfon for “knowing his stuff”.
“Try working on housing – you have a new housing minister every year! Other parts of government have suffered more.”
But Leunig regrets that “we never had a secretary of state whose heart was in further education”.
He “always hoped” that Sajid Javid, whom he served as chancellor and whose educational journey included technical college before doing a degree at Exeter University, would be offered the role of education secretary, “particularly towards the end of his time in government”.
“It was someone in an FE college who said to Sajid to not just go to university, but to go to a prestigious one. They changed his life.”
One of Leunig’s DfE positions was as joint chief analyst, a role which covered FE as well as schools. But FE was “never at the core” of his work.
He perhaps has more experience writing about apprenticeships as they were back in the 1600s (he wrote a history paper in 2009 about it). But now, Leunig is particularly “looking forward to writing about FE – because it matters so much.”