Liz Truss may trail Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak in the Conservative leadership race, but as the “continuity candidate” to succeed Boris Johnson, she has a hard-right base to please. To that end, she has chosen to repeat old attacks on her home and her old school. She lived and went to school in Roundhay, a leafy suburb of Leeds. I know a bit about it – I grew up there at the same time. I too went to that school.
Truss claims to have grown up in a “red wall” seat. This is not just a wilful anachronism, it is flatly untrue. Leeds North East, the constituency that contains both Roundhay school and the tall stone houses in which Truss and I grew up, was Conservative from 1955 to 1997 – by which time Truss had graduated from Oxford.
But I think Truss’s claims about her school and schooling, which got her to Merton college to study philosophy, politics and economics, are a more serious matter. Roundhay school is a coeducational comprehensive. I went there at 13. It has grown to include a primary campus, but it still sits amid great green oceans of fields marked out for football, rugby and hockey. Its buildings, put up a century ago, are grand. If Truss were to say that when we were there in the early 1990s, those buildings were neglected and falling apart, she would be correct.
But to do so would be to draw attention to the fact that when we were at Roundhay, Conservatives controlled education policy and spending, and how when the school was rebuilt, Labour did. The history of the school’s official rating also tells such a tale, from “satisfactory” under the Conservatives to “outstanding” under Labour.
Still, this is not 1992 or 2002 or even 2012. It is 2022, when the candidates to lead the Conservative party of Boris Johnson seem untroubled by truth. Truss left Roundhay in 1993. I left in 1996. Simply put, we were both taught well by the same good teachers, from whose work I have benefited every single day since I left the school – as I am sure Truss has too. Nonetheless, in December 2020, Truss said: “While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.”
That’s risible. We were not “taught about racism and sexism” to the exclusion of the basics. We were taught the national curriculum. From what I remember, periods of PSE – personal and social education – were mostly spent catching up on work for other subjects or shooting the breeze with the teacher.
The school had problems with racism and sexism, for sure. Which school doesn’t? Roundhay sits on a hill. Climb that hill and you see tall stone houses, a cricket club, a huge urban park – the privileged, largely white neighbourhood where Truss and I grew up. Go down the hill and you are soon in Harehills, Gipton and Chapeltown: much less privileged, much less white. Sometimes there were tensions or clashes between kids from up or down the hill, between Black, brown or white kids, or between kids within whichever group. Most of the time there were not. The school rugby team I played for was very mixed, and everyone worked for each other.
This week, introducing her proposed economic policy, Truss doubled down on Roundhay school, where she apparently saw “children who failed and were let down by low expectations”. Perhaps she did. But perhaps she would have seen children failing or being let down wherever she went to school: city or country, state or private, satisfactory or outstanding. Perhaps she is selectively deploying her upbringing, and casually traducing the school and teachers who nurtured her, for simple political gain.
I’m furious, obviously. So are other Roundhay alumni. Here are some of their thoughts. A friend in my year, who also went into politics, says: “It’s a nonsense. To the extent that we were ‘let down’ it was because we were being taught in a building in such a state of disrepair that you could put your fingers through the window frames. Funding, not low expectations, was the problem.”
Another friend who, like Truss, received an education at Roundhay that helped win an Oxbridge place, added: “She made it to Oxford – if people still think that’s worth something – and is in the running to be the world’s worst prime minister no 2. So how bad can it have been?”
“Truss is basically someone with a massive chip on her shoulder who can’t work out what tribe she’s in,” said another friend, from the year below me. “She used to describe herself as brought up in ‘Yorkshire’ (county fairs, moorland, Geoff Boycott), to curry favour with the rural upper-middle classes she wants to be part of in Norfolk. She now claims to be from a Ken Loach film, T’Red Wall, in the hope that the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs will like her, or more importantly for her, accept her.”
We are aggrieved. Another who was there in the time of Truss explains why: “These comments are particularly disrespectful to a brilliant team of teachers. My mum worked long hours in a specialist learning unit at Roundhay, helping provide extra support to allow pupils with learning difficulties the same opportunities as their classmates. This was one of very few such services to be provided in schooling at the time, one of the first of its kind. Far from being a school that ‘failed’ students, Roundhay was and still is a great source of pride.”
That’s much more than can be said of Truss, don’t you think?
July 18, 2022 at 02:47PM Martin Pengelly