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14th August 2023

Secretary of State Gillian Keegan on Sir Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak and how Shirley Williams wrecked the education system

Gillian Keegan


I spent most of my career in business and am a bit of a Johnny-come-Lately to politics; I got elected at the age 49. I am the first former apprentice to be Education Secretary – and I’m also the only degree level apprentice in the House of Commons.

25 years ago, growing up on the outskirts of Liverpool in Knowsley, there weren’t that many opportunities. For me, an apprenticeship was a golden ticket; I was so delighted at the time. But it’s been quite a shock at the Department for Education when everyone looks down on you as if you’ve come up with soot on your face.

I’m sometimes asked who was the person who most destroyed the education system and I’d say Shirley Williams. I was on a trip with a Lib Dem MP, going to St Mungos to visit a homeless shelter; we were on a Public Accounts Committee together. She spent the entire train ride telling me how fantastic Shirley Williams was, and all about the comprehensive system. Having been a beneficiary of this system, where 92 per cent of students were without any qualifications, I was confused by her enthusiasm. Then I found out on the return journey that her education consisted of the International School of Brussels and Roedean; she’d never been anywhere near a comprehensive school.

That’s the whole point: theory and practice are very different. Rishi Sunak understands that and it’s one of things which makes him a fantastic prime minister. He has the most extraordinary talent; he’s very detailed and strategic and kind. I look at him and think that he’s got that stardust, and a lot of space to grow: I think he will be a world statesman.

Rishi is very encouraging but also gets things done. Look at the Windsor Framework: when you consider the column inches which were devoted to this, and the question of whether it was any good or not, and whether it was practicable: he got it through. Look at the way he’s handled the health unions and the teaching unions.

Education will be a big part of the story we tell to the electorate next year, when it comes to our achievements over 13 years. In 2010, we inherited a lot of problems in our education system. The attainment of children wasn’t up compared with other countries; for instance, in the PISA rankings the country had fallen back nine points over the 13 years of the Labour government. That’s quite a lot. We had fewer schools deemed ‘Outstanding’.

We also did a lot in childcare in our budget earlier this year. In 13 years of Labour government, all Labour introduced was 12 and a half hours for three and four year olds. That was it. Since then we’ve introduced 30 free hours, and now we’re doing nine months to five years, which leaves Labour nowhere to go.

You’ve also got to look at what Michael Gove and Nick Gibb did in setting up academies; they’ve transformed academic outcomes and opportunities for kids. Having grown up in Knowsley, I know there are large numbers of very bright children who don’t get the chance to go to an outstanding school or to university. Social mobility is not a slogan with me.

We’ve also done a lot to be proud of when it comes to universities, and in relation to skills. That’s a nice thing about my current role: it’s where I started as a skills and apprenticeships minister. I can now get stuff through which I wanted to do then and which everyone overruled me on at the time.

One such thing is medical apprenticeships. I started to think: “How do we get parents to want their children to do apprenticeships?” I thought about what parents want for their children: they want their kids to have a good profession and a stellar career. When it comes to medical apprenticeships for 18 year olds, the courses are five years long. That means you can come at 18 and be a doctor in five years. It’s the sort of thing which shows you that this is a government focused on delivery.

From my seat on the front bench I have a good view of the Leader of the Opposition. The only time Sir Keir Starmer has ever energised a room is by leaving it. It’s quite a good vantage point on the front bench. I think: “You’re making a massive miscalculation. What are you going to say when we deliver all this!” Margaret Thatcher always used to say, if you’re not ten points behind then you’re not doing enough. This is going to be a historic fifth term.


Gillian Keegan was talking at the In and Out Club 


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