Liz Truss may follow Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak in the Tory leadership race, but as a ‘continuity contender’ to succeed Boris Johnson she has a hard-right base to please. To that end, she chose to repeat the 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 little about it, I grew up there at the same time. I too went to this school.
Truss claims to have grown up in a “red wall” seat. This isn’t just a deliberate anachronism, it’s downright false. Leeds North East, the constituency that contains both Roundhay School and the tall stone houses that Truss and I grew up in, was conservative from 1955 to 1997 – when Truss graduated from Oxford.
But I think Truss’ claims about her school and education, which led her to Merton University to study philosophy, politics and economics, are more serious. Roundhay School is a comprehensive coeducational school. I went there when I was 13. It has expanded to include a main campus, but it still sits amidst large green oceans of marked-out football, rugby and hockey pitches. Its buildings, erected a century ago, are grandiose. If Truss said that when we were there in the early 1990s these buildings were neglected and falling apart, she would be right.
But that would be to draw attention to the fact that when we were at Roundhay the Tories controlled education policy and spending, and how when the school was rebuilt Labor did. The history of the school’s official rating also tells such a story, from ‘satisfactory’ under the Conservatives to ‘outstanding’ under Labour.
However, we are not in 1992, nor in 2002, nor even in 2012. We are in 2022, when the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative party of Boris Johnson seem serene in front of the truth. Truss left Roundhay in 1993. I left in 1996. Simply put, we were both well educated by the same good teachers, who I have benefited from every day of work since I left school – just like Truss, I’m sure. 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.”
It’s laughable. We weren’t “taught about racism and sexism” excluding the basics. We were taught the national curriculum. From what I remember, the periods of PE – personal and social education – were mainly devoted to catching up on work for other subjects or to take the breeze with the teacher.
The school had problems with racism and sexism, that’s for sure. What school doesn’t? Roundhay sits on a hill. Climb this hill and you will see tall stone houses, a cricket club, a huge urban park – the privileged, largely white neighborhood where Truss and I grew up. Walk down the hill and you’re soon in Harehills, Gipton and Chapeltown: far less privileged, far less white. Sometimes there were tensions or clashes between children up and down the hill, between black, brown, or white children, or between children within any group. Most of the time there was none. The school rugby team I played for was very mixed and everyone worked for each other.
This week, presenting her economic policy proposal, Truss doubled down on the school in Roundhay, where she apparently saw “children who failed and were let down by low expectations”. Maybe she did. But perhaps she would have seen children fail or be disappointed wherever she went to school: town or country, state or private, satisfactory or exceptional. Perhaps she is selectively deploying her education and casually denouncing the school and teachers who nurtured her, for mere political gain.
I’m furious, of course. The same goes for other Roundhay alumni. Here are some of their thoughts. A friend from my class, who also got into politics, said, “That’s nonsense. To the extent we were ‘disappointed’ it was because we were schooled in a building in such disrepair that you could put your fingers through the window frames. Funding, not low expectations, was the problem.
Another friend who, like Truss, had an education at Roundhay that helped win a place at Oxbridge, added: ‘She’s come to Oxford – if people still think it’s worth anything – and is in the running for being the No. 2 world’s worst prime minister So how bad could that have been?
“Truss is basically someone with a huge chip on her shoulder who can’t figure out which tribe she belongs to,” said another friend, of the year below me. “She used to describe herself as having grown up in ‘Yorkshire’ (county fairs, moors, Geoff Boycott), to curry favor 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 2019 Tory MPs will like her or, more importantly, accept her.
We are wronged. Another who was there during Truss’s time explains why: “These comments are especially disrespectful to a brilliant team of teachers. My mum worked long hours in a specialist learning unit at Roundhay, helping to provide extra support to allow pupils with learning difficulties the same opportunities as their classmates. It was one of the few such services to be provided in the school setting at the time, one of the first of its kind. Far from being a school that “failed” students, Roundhay was and still is a source of great pride.
That’s more than can be said for Truss, don’t you think?