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How my mom and I invented leveling in 2014 – but Boris Johnson was the only one of the best conservatives who paid attention: Justine Greening

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Justine Greening with Boris Johnson when they were respectively transport secretary and mayor of London.

Justine Greening with Boris Johnson when they were respectively transport secretary and mayor of London.

Social mobility is about helping people who need wheelchairs to get around more easily, right? It was in 2014.

I was talking with my mother about how I was working more on social mobility in Cabinet. Her expression regularly told me that she didn’t understand the term.

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It was then that I realized that I needed a better term to describe social mobility and equal opportunity.

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What does Boris Johnson mean by the expression “ level ” after his party’s victory in the Hartlepool by-election?

It had to be something instinctive and memorable that could really be drilled. The phrase I found was to level up.

He was describing not only what equal opportunity is, but also how you provide it without taking opportunities away from those who are with them, but spreading them to those who do not.

You level up. At the time, I was cabinet minister and my special adviser told me that sentence would never make noise.

I challenged him to find something better, but when he couldn’t we would stick with it and I used it more and more.

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Justine Greening says her mother is to blame for the term “upgrading”.

When it appeared in the Queen’s Speech this week, a reporter later reminded me of how Id used it in my 2015 general election acceptance speech in Putney. Neither David Cameron nor Theresa May picked up the phrase as I inserted it into more and more of my speeches, including at the Conservative Party conference, at our language of education department while I was secretary at The Yorkshire Post.

But there was one person who understood his importance to a wider audience just as much as I did: Boris Johnson.

During the 2019 Conservative Party leadership race, I sat down with my former campaign colleague in London to talk about putting leveling at the top of his platform if he were to become party leader. Of all the candidates, Boris immediately understood why leveling was important and caught my own enthusiasm. And, as the local and municipal elections of the past few weeks show, voters fully understand what leveling would mean for their lives.

They understand that this is tangible progress to have the same chances to continue in life. Voters understand this is your opportunity to get the most out of yourself, whoever you are and wherever you live.

Despite what some in the Westminster bubble insist, it is not a question of defining leveling. People know what it is. The problem now is to level up.

It means mastering a complex program, as no government or generation has been able to.

Governments of all stripes have tried in different ways to achieve similar things. Doorstep job creation ideas are not new. One of my memories growing up in Rotherham was walking past an abandoned site just off the M1 with a sign hanging from the security fence indicating Rotherham Enterprise Zone.

The companies came to get the tax breaks but left as soon as they were over.

There have been countless regeneration projects over the years. If we are serious about making a difference, we must learn from the past failures of all governments, no matter how well meaning they are.

I believe the key to success is breaking down the complex leveling problem into its distinct parts and making plans to systematically address each one.

Thanks to the promise of social mobility, working with businesses, universities, charities and the public sector that are engaged in this program, this is exactly what we have done.

We have identified 14 upgrade goals (www.levellingupgoals.org) that if we can reach them, that means we are closing the gaps in opportunity.

Some of the goals cover education, some relate to access to opportunities, others focus on everyday life that helps or hinders us housing, health, digital access, the environment.

The goals have all-party support and are championed in Parliament by Keighley MP Robbie Moore, among others. Now upgrade targets are used by large companies like BP, Persimmon and Direct Line Group, public sector employers like the BBC and Channel 4, universities like Bradford, York St John and York, NHS Trusts and government departments such as the Ministry of Justice.

It’s a standard architecture that every organization, big or small, even a government can use to define and then lay out its own contribution and plan to help level our country.

With metrics behind each goal, we can also track progress. The goals are simple and they help us see how we all have a role to play.

Even if you only contribute to one goal, it’s better than none, and we will succeed in acting collectively.

Boris Johnson was right to applaud the importance of the upgrade at our pivotal meeting in 2019. Now he needs to relentlessly focus on his delivery.

Upgrade goals can ultimately prove to be even more powerful than the term itself, as they provide the framework through which we can finally make a difference in people’s lives.

Boriss’s political success to date hinges on the upgrade phrase, his continued success will depend on achieving the upgrade goals.

Justine Greening was Secretary of State for Education and was born in Rotherham.

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