The start of term at Oxford University is bittersweet for the close-knit Morrisseys; we have just ‘lost’ three offspring to their undergraduate studies. Dropping them off at their colleges (Wadham, Christ Church and Keble, with another Morrissey at All Souls), my husband Richard and I felt a little wistful as well as proud. Every year we observe the striking diversity of the students in every sense bar one: they all seem very clever. Oxford is getting something right — broadening accessibility by contextualising offers, while unashamedly sticking to high standards. This is helping it maintain its crown as Britain’s highest-ranked university, one of four in the global top ten (the other six are all American). State-school-educated, I was a (very) early beneficiary of what would now be called an access scheme at Cambridge and remain grateful for a process that was testing yet fair. In this, as in so many other areas key to future prosperity, Britain is leading the way.
Education loomed large for me this week; I’m a Fellow (governor) at Eton and the Provost and Fellows held our first meeting of the academic year. As always (since long before Labour’s declared policy to kill off private schools, with Eton top of the hit list), we spent much of the meeting exploring ways to expand the outreach programmes. Ninety current pupils have free places, compared with 27 a decade ago, and Eton has very successful partnerships with two state schools, Holyport College and the London Academy of Excellence. In all, Eton has spent nearly £67 million on financial aid since 2009 but there’s more that could be done — and we will be doing it. The one thing the ‘P&F’ never contemplate is lowering standards; the stories of how scholarships transform lives are utterly compelling. As Eton’s forward-thinking headmaster Simon Henderson puts it: ‘Abolishing excellence never got anyone anywhere. Harnessing it, though, is another matter.’
I’ve spoken at several recent events aimed at harnessing excellence, including the launch of the 30% Club’s annual mentoring programme, involving nearly 3,000 people from more than 100 organisations. I was struck by their energy and determination to innovate; the club’s programme is now going global via a ‘virtual’ platform. Poet Karl Lokko startled real-life mentors and mentees with accounts of witnessing a murder aged 12, and of joining a gang. ‘Gangs,’ he said, ‘operate the best mentoring scheme, with the leader watching over his number two, number two overseeing number three and so on right down to the newest recruit.’ It makes perfect sense. Companies, listen and learn.
Stephen Kelly, former CEO of Sage, and I are working on an idea we’re dubbing Brighter Britain. Economic forecasts are not the sole basis on which most companies make decisions (which is just as well really). Businesses focus on serving customers and exploring opportunities for growth. That reality is not being told. Stephen and I will be asking those who run businesses to share specific actions they are taking to drive their companies’ success and in turn the country’s growth. Non-partisan, Brighter Britain will show we can largely self-determine success. Watch this space.
Which leads on to another space: one that’s opened up in my own career. I’m leaving Legal & General and that announcement has coincided with speculation over my candidacy as the next governor of the Bank of England. The Bank’s stated mission is ‘to promote the good of the people by maintaining monetary and financial stability’. We live in unstable times but that does not make for a mission impossible. A prerequisite for the next governor’s success? A willingness to think about old problems in new ways.
Whoever is appointed, I hope that they prioritise building a strong relationship with the public they serve, listening to people across the country. They should resist the temptation to try to stimulate growth via negative interest rates; zero is not just another number. I hope they recognise the fantastic opportunity for export-led growth: the pound’s fall means that world-class British goods and services are nearly 20 per cent cheaper than before the referendum. And they should encourage government borrowing for productive uses on today’s best-ever terms.
Most importantly, the incoming governor must truly believe that Britain has a bright future. It’s the combination of strengths that marks us out: great design and fintech, the best legal framework for deals, green finance expertise etc. They need to harness all this excellence on the global stage. Whoever it is, Godspeed.