RECENTLY our local Swiss newspaper has been showcasing young people graduating from their apprenticeships with firms. Page after page features smiling employers and confident newly qualified youngsters. As TCW reported in April 2018, the Swiss VET system contributes positively to strong local cohesion and very low youth unemployment.
So it was interesting to learn that our Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is herself a graduate of a UK apprenticeship scheme. After secondary education at a comprehensive in Knowsley, Merseyside, she started work at 16 as an apprentice with ACDelco vehicle components in Kirkby. This qualifies her as one of the few current politicians who have experienced working life on the factory floor. All the more remarkable that she should be appointed, in February 2020, as Under Secretary at Education, where she became minister responsible for Apprenticeships and Skills, the first ‘apprentice’ ever to do so.
Her 27-year career path, following a degree in Business Studies at Liverpool John Moores University, took her into management, in senior posts with Delco Electronics, NatWest Bank, MasterCard International, Amadeus IT Group and Travelport. Finally her flight from the shop floor took her into politics. She became a local councillor in 2014 and MP for Chichester in 2017, embodying that ditty of the trade union movement: ‘The working class can kiss my a**e, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.’
Such coarseness seems especially to appeal to 55-year-old Mrs Keegan. Following the recent exposé of the RAAC concrete crisis in school buildings, she was forced to apologise for her statement accusing everyone of ‘sitting on their arses’ and shifting the blame on to the schools themselves.
She has been widely criticised for her language, and admitted she might be in need of another session of media training, but added: ‘I don’t want to learn how to stop swearing, but maybe the mic thing.’ Any contrition appears to stem from that curse of the politician – being found out ‘at it’, rather than the unprofessional vulgarity of her attitude. In fact, her full statement, recorded while unaware the microphone was switched on, included her angry challenge: ‘Does anyone ever say, you know what, you’ve done a f***ing good job?’
But has she been doing a f***ing good job?
Her career has been a whistle-stop tour of government departments. Four months after entering Parliament, she was appointed to the Public Accounts Committee. A year on, she was made Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Treasury. The following January, she was a PPS at Defence, after a few months PPS to the Home Secretary and by September, PPS to the Secretary at Health and Social Care.
Following her stint at Education she was appointed Minister of State for Care and Mental Health in 2021, and in the short-lived Truss administration had a brief encounter with the Africa office. Finally in October 2022, she returned to Education as Secretary of State and became a member of the Privy Council.
Phew! All that in a mere five years. But what has she actually achieved?
Government statistics for apprenticeship starts in England show that in 2014/15, when Mrs Keegan entered local politics, total starts amounted to 499,900. By the year of her departmental appointment, 2020/21, this had declined to 321,400. There has been a small increase since, but numbers have never fully recovered. Otherwise, she assisted with the launch of an FE White Paper and skills Bill, the initial roll-out of T-levels, and skills bootcamps.
Meanwhile her tendency to controversy gained momentum. In August 2021, she came under fire for going on holiday during the GCSE and A-level results, claiming that exam results were not her direct responsibility, and although she was meant to be minister on duty, she had received special permission to work remotely. (Half of her department still WFH.)
In July, she defended the charitable status of private schools on the grounds that their fees ‘cost the same as a family holiday abroad’. (Average fees are £16,000 pa.) Only last month, she advised teenagers waiting for their exam results not to fret, because ‘in ten years, no one will be looking at your grades’.
In ten years, no one will be looking at the Education Secretary’s track record either. The fact is that Gillian Keegan is the fifth person to hold that role in just four months, with the following MPs having a ride on the Education merry-go-round:
Nadhim Zahawi – September 15, 2021 to July 5: 293 days.
Michelle Donelan – July 5 to July 7: 2 days (!)
James Cleverly – July 7 to September 6: 61 days
Kit Malthouse – September 6 to October 25: 49 days.
Following Mrs Keegan’s appointment, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘The revolving door shows a complete disregard for the importance of what should be a key government post and it must stop. Education matters more than this. It is a vital public service. Schools and colleges deserve stable political leadership.’
In the early 70s, Dr Jacob Bronowski wrote in The Ascent of Man about what he called man’s ‘Long Childhood’, and the vital importance of education within it. In the great civilisations of the past – Egypt, China, India, even mediaeval Europe – the freedom accorded to the young was always limited. It was only post-Enlightenment that education was democratised, students questioned everything and learned from books for themselves. Philosophy and science blossomed, contributing to the development and dominance of the Western world. ‘Without this, our civilisation will collapse,’ wrote Bronowski. ‘If we don’t take the next step, someone else will, in Africa, say, or China.’
How prescient! Far more important than crumbling concrete are the real problems facing education today – collapsing literacy and numeracy, useless degrees, grade inflation, classroom indiscipline, burdened teachers, politicised curricula and on and on.
Never mind media training, the real lesson Gillian Keegan needs to learn is what education is for, and how to deliver it effectively. She thinks she has all the experience necessary, metaphorically awarding herself an A-star. A more competent judge might mark her down as an embarrassing D-minus.