Is Justine Greening the first education secretary to attend a comprehensive school? Yes, sort of

Justine Greening is the new education secretary and is said to be the first to have attended a comprehensive school. This is mostly true, but there are a few important caveats as editor Laura McInerney explains.


Congratulations to Justine Greening who has been crowned as education secretary by Theresa May.

Many people, myself included, are pointing to her as the first education secretary to attend a secondary comprehensive school. This is true, but people sometimes jump to wrong conclusions so it’s worth explaining a bit more.

First, “comprehensive” is not the same as “state-educated”. Many other education secretaries attended state-funded schools but, in almost every case, they attended a grammar school.

Second, “comprehensive” is a word typically related to secondary schools, so primaries are counted out.

So, the grammar school rule catches out those secretaries who we might expect were comprehensively educated, including Alan Johnson, famous for leaving school at 15 to become a postman, and Estelle Morris, whose school converted to becoming a comprehensive in her final years there. In that latter case, you could argue she attended a school labelled as a comprehensive for a short period, but given her entire ceohort – and most of the school – will have been a grammar one, it’s splitting hairs, and it certainly isn’t the case she was comprehensively educated.

A second issue is David Blunkett. He attended the Royal School for the Blind, an all-ability state-funded school. When I interviewed him he talked about the school as a comprehensive, given that children there were of all abilities. It is, however, technically a special needs school – and is defined as such by the Department for Education.

Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening (centre) during a visit to an Informal Tented Settlement occupied by Syrian refuges close to the Syrian boarder in Lebanon, to see how the UK's response and aid is helping the refugee crisis.
Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening centre during a visit to an Informal Tented Settlement occupied by Syrian refuges close to the Syrian boarder in Lebanon to see how the UKs response and aid is helping the refugee crisis

It is an awkward one, though. So I tend to get around this by saying Greening is the first education secretary who went to a “straightforwardly comprehensive” school or a “mainstream” comprehensive.

It is also worth noting that Blunkett attended a regular further education college to complete his A-levels. Again, he might argue he has a claim on being comprehensively-educated, but for secondary schools, he’s really counted out.

One other past education secretary causes a problem, depending on how far you stretch the definition of the role. Between 1945 and 1964, the role was merely a ministerial one. The first secretary of state for education was Quintin Hogg in 1964.

If you go from Hogg’s appointment, then you are on safe ground. If, however, we go back to the 1945 date, there is the thorny issue of George Tomlinson, education secretary between 1947 and 1951. He attended a comprehensive school, as far as that label can be used to describe schools in the late 19th century, but left at the age of 12 to go to work in a cotton mill.

He can, however, probably be counted out as having attended a comprehensive secondary school, given the age he left, though we can say he was comprehensively-educated. (He is wonderful, by the way, you can read more about him here).

Of course, there is no guarantee that Greening’s policies will be affected by her own schooling, although she has hinted that it drives her belief in “social mobility”, telling The Spectator in 2014 “the experience I had growing up, going to my local comprehensive, my family going through difficult times … it’s about understanding what it’s like to start from scratch”.







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