Editors Pick

Why you need to have a happy workforce

30th November 2023

Gillian Keegan on Maths to 18, apprenticeships and why Sadiq Khan is good for Conservatives

Gillian Keegan


Now that we’re coming into a General Election year, I feel confident that we’re going to see Rishi Sunak’s strength and leadership come through and prove the doubters wrong.

So how do we win? I think it’s very important that we provide a great focus on business education; we need to work harder on encouraging young people in setting up their own businesses.

Rishi Sunak’s Maths to 18 policy is sometimes misrepresented, but it’s of huge practical importance to understand about working capital and the administrative side of business, all of which obviously goes back to the importance of mathematics as a core subject.

There’s an entrepreneurial element to the policy which has been missed in too much of the commentary. What we need to champion is the acquisition of knowledge about the pragmatic side to life.

That’s why citing our educational achievements is going to be a big part of our strategy for the next election. Many of our universities have now set up entrepreneurial centres, and the government is already thinking about ways in which we can help entrepreneurs: they’re the lifeblood of our economy.

But I do accept that when it comes to Maths to 18, it will be absolutely crucial how we sell that policy. Young people already know that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will transform their lives within their lifetime – in fact, it’s already doing so. What we have to do is to demystify that and sell it as something that’s going to help you in your life. This stuff is going to be changing how our houses work, our jobs, and our education: we have to make sure it’s something that people don’t see as a threat. When the Maths to 18 policy was raised, everyone imagined it amounted to making it compulsory to take the subject at A-Level. That’s not what we’re talking about, and we need to make sure we bring everyone along with us according to a proper understand of what the Prime Minister is really championing.

As I look ahead to the next General Election, I sometimes think that the current London Mayor Sadiq Khan is doing rather a good job for us. Take the free school meals policy that he’s introduced. It sounds fantastic on the face of it, but it costs a fortune and is only for the course of a year. Also, nobody in City Hall seems to be thinking about how you deliver it. This is where Labour is always weak: in the crucial realm of reality.

By stark contrast, the Conservatives have been very pragmatic: Rishi Sunak knows how to get things done. So, for instance, we have an international student strategy which we’ve developed over the past couple of years which targets international students, and seeks to recognise that our education system is one of our biggest exports.

I recall vividly one trip to Egypt where everybody was talking about how fantastic our education system is: at King’s College London, we train most of the world’s defence leaders, as well as most of the senior army figures. Of course, we all see the immigration figures, but I’ve put the case firmly that immigration can be vital to the economy and to the health of our world-class universities. It’s a question of balance.

Another area where Rishi Sunak has been highly strategic is on creative industries, where the government has put a range of policies in place to recognise that this is our second biggest sector. We’ve tried to make sure that student loan finance is available in the short term and in smaller chunks. On a separate front, we’re also seeing an increase in nursing and medical schools, as well as full time or part time apprenticeships: but we need to change the culture around recruitment. My local hospital for instance recently returned from a trip to the Philippines to recruit nurses over there; and I explained to them that it’s perfectly possible to recruit them here.

There’s so much more to do. I have also spoken to recruiters at big companies and corporations: what they find is that a lot of kids do well in school but then lack the social skills and understanding of social interaction suitable for the working world. But a lot of that will come back to the Maths to 18 policy: we need to create a numerate and pragmatic workforce which understands the realities of life.


The Secretary of State for Education was talking at the In and Out Club

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