Tim Leunig is the brains behind some of the biggest education policies of the past decade. He also came up with the furlough scheme, which helped to stop thousands of businesses collapsing during Covid.
We meet at Westminster Abbey, where Leunig arrives in a high-vis vest (although he didn’t cycle here). It fits his reputation as the archetypal “weirdo and misfit” that Dominic Cummings, the government’s former chief adviser, said Westminster needed more of.
The setting enables Leunig to indulge his love of history and politics as we tour memorials to the people who created ripples on the tide of British history, before turning to the ripples of Leunig’s own making.
The weirdo and misfits
In 12 years as a civil servant, Leunig advised Number 10, the Treasury and Department for Education, among others. He is a close ally of Michael Gove, Nick Gibb and Cummings. Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is an “old friend” and neighbour.
He agrees with Cummings’ infamous remark about weirdos and misfits. “We need more people willing to tell us how it is.”
Also, like Cummings, he is not afraid to cause offence. He railed against the regeneration of northern cities more than 15 years ago, saying the North is “less desirable” for business and calling for more housebuilding instead down South.
Four years ago, he created a storm by suggesting the UK does not need farmers.
He tells me that any teacher who does not believe in the phonics approach is “not a professional, any more than a doctor who says don’t believe in antibiotics, or that smoking doesn’t kill you”.
Leunig says he will “tell you what I think is true, and I will change my mind when my understanding of the facts changes”.
He says working on the furlough scheme while economic adviser at the Treasury was “the greatest privilege of my life”.
He took the idea from a scheme in Germany to protect workers when certain industries face problems. He is adamant that UK unemployment would have hit four million without it.
He left the Treasury as ministers slashed the civil servant headcount in 2022. Cummings said his departure was “another sign this Downing Street is pointless”, praising Leunig’s “honest advice without any of normal courtier dynamics so ubiquitous and poisonous” in Westminster.
Leunig took up a few short-term advisory roles across other departments, including the DfE last year, then after joining consultancy Public First as a director in May he spent September and October as the prime minister’s education adviser. He recently started as the Onward think-tank’s chief economist.
While he has many policy legacies, the most immediate is the controversial Advanced British Standard (ABS). Under the Baccalaureate-style qualification, students will study at least five subjects at either “major” or “minor” levels, including maths and English.
But, given the current government is likely to be on its way out, and there are much more pressing issues than qualification reform, why now?
“Why not now?” he says. “You have to start somewhere, sometime.”
He believes maths will be essential in the future AI economy as it teaches a “way of thinking that is structured and not intuitive”.
“Maths is hard. When you’ve conquered maths, you’ve gained a skill and a sense of logic that lasts you a lifetime.”
He thinks too many people are having to retake the subject after they leave school, and backs Labour’s plan to focus on maths in primary schools.
But how to recruit the teachers? Essentially, pay them more and “out compete other employers”.
The problem is that England has “lots of careers” for maths graduates, unlike Finland, for instance. “Of course they want to be teachers – what else can you do there?”
He says there was “virtually nothing” in terms of maths policy proposals that he did not “put a big smiley face and a double tick on” when they came across his desk.
Although he left Oxford University in 1996 with a PhD and multiple accolades under his belt, he was not a standout maths student at school. He got a C in his further maths A-level at Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School, a boy’s grammar school in Rochester.
Leunig had a relatively modest upbringing in Kent. His father left soon after he started primary school, his mother did shop work. His “rather posh” accent comes from being taught to overpronounce syllables to cure a speech impediment.
‘The aim of good government is social mobility’
Leunig’s time at the DfE ran from 2012, as then-schools minister David Law’s adviser, to 2017, as the department’s chief scientific adviser.
He waxes lyrical about Gove, who introduced the pupil premium – despite it uplifting funding for “kids from families who disproportionately vote Labour”.
He fondly recalls Gove writing on his office whiteboard “the aim of any good government is social mobility”, something that Leunig believes passionately in. Leunig devised the national funding formula in 2014 (although it took another four years to get “political buy-in”).
His belief in fair funding stems from his own schooling. He recalls how books – which said “Kent County Council” on the back – “used to run out every year. The school would ring the council and beg for more exercise books. It didn’t have a budget to buy books itself.”
While academisation gave schools that financial control, the “unfairness was [still] baked in”.
Leunig says the new formula – which has still to be rolled out fully – will mean it is “no longer possible for a school to claim that an individual child would be better funded at another school, or that funding is the reason that the child is doing badly in their school”.
He is “profoundly proud” of replacing the “utterly pernicious” system of five A to C GCSEs, which Leunig believes incentivised schools to try to game the system, with the progress 8 accountability measure.
While some schools have narrowed the number of subjects taken since, he puts this down to making GSCEs “broader and more substantive”.
Leunig’s own school exam results included a B at history A-level. He says he was “unlucky” but, like history exams, Ofsted inspections are “valid but not reliable”. He highlights how having three of your best teachers ill when inspectors visit could substantially change the outcome.
“Ofsted is supposed to be a value judgment, but that comes at the expense of reliability. So, the question is, what do you do with that judgment?”
Leunig adds, though, that he has “a lot of time and sympathy” for former Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, who he has known for 20 years.
‘Closing schools next big challenge’
His biggest regret is not rolling out a randomised control trial before introducing virtual school heads in 2014 to oversee the education of looked-after children in local authorities. These children are “so vulnerable that we really need to know” if virtual heads work.
“They are probably a very good idea. But [without a randomised control trial] it’s really hard to work [that] out. Which means you are vulnerable to the next minister’s bright idea.”
Leunig is also “surprised” he was never informed about reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), especially by local authorities that employ structural engineers.
“Heads at the time complained to me about the building schools for the future programme, which they found very expensive, and PFI schools – never about RAAC.”
He thinks the “the biggest challenge facing the next government is going to be closing schools” due to falling birth-rates.
“Think about all the schools we’ve rebuilt in the last decade that we’re now going to throw away because the number of kids is going down,” he says.
“If only 10 years ago we’d expanded schools with Portacabins, we could now move them to secondary schools as the bulge moves through. Then, when the bulge goes altogether, sell them off or demolish them.”
Education secretary Gillian Keegan was derided for saying that pupils prefer portable classrooms amid the RAAC crisis. But Leunig says “they’re great – relatively cheap, much more flexible and well insulated”.
“Who cares” that they are relatively unattractive? “Paint the outsides!”
Unsurprisingly, he has got other bold ideas, too.
In 2011, he claimed there was “good evidence that teaching assistants do not work” because classrooms with TAs “do not have better results”.
While he supports TAs as a way into teaching, he has “more scepticism” about “a dinner lady with no qualifications” taking on the role. There is a danger of kids’ confidence being impacted by “nice lady syndrome”.
“The teacher can avoid [dealing with] a kid because the TA’s looking after them. They then become isolated from their friends.”
‘We don’t try enough things’
He thinks further financial savings could be made by stopping the “huge cross subsidies” some schools make to their sixth forms and suggests ringfencing the budget for 11 to 16-year-olds.
“A lot of academies now create sixth forms because it impresses parents. It makes it easier to recruit teachers … but many of them are very small and inefficient.”
Leunig, who recalls being in a class of 40 as a pupil at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Medway, says there is “precious little evidence” that class size makes any difference – “at least until you get to 12 per class”.
He also suggests that every head should become a governor at another local school.
What about their workload pressures? Heads have “got to get better at delegating”.
One issue heads might all agree with Leunig on is his concern over the deteriorating mental health of teenage girls. 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”.
Nonetheless, he does not mind advocating for more screen time for some children – in the form of full-time online schooling. The approach “could benefit children in rural settings”.
He adds: “If we have people of calibre running online schools, I’m willing to take a punt on it. My general principle is that we don’t try enough things.”