The new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has appointed Gillian Keegan as education secretary.
“I’m deeply honoured,” she tweeted as news of the appointment broke.
“Education transforms lives – I know that talent is spread equally around the country and I will work tirelessly to ensure opportunity is also.”
The MP for Chichester is the fifth person to act as education secretary in four months, following, in short order, Kit Malthouse, James Cleverly, Michelle Donelan and Nadhim Zahawi.
The frequency of turnover was condemned as “farcical” by Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
Welcoming Keegan to her new post, he said: “This 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 which addresses the crucial issues of inadequate funding and severe staff shortages caused by a government which has undervalued the workforce and sapped its morale.”
The low priority given to the education of the nation’s children and young people and the low regard in which this government holds teachers and support staff has to stop – Dr Mary Bousted, NEU
Barton’s words were echoed by Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union:
“We welcome Gillian Keegan to the position of education secretary,” she said. “They are, staggeringly, the 10th education secretary in 12 years… This does not fill teachers, parents or students with any confidence that this government is treating the education brief as one of the most important jobs in cabinet.
Keegan arrives at the Department for Education from the Foreign Office, where she served a six-week spell as the minister for Africa.
Previously she was a health minister, with responsibility for care and mental health during the latter half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and minister for apprenticeships and skills.
In July, she was tasked by prime minister Boris Johnson with leading a government call for evidence on what should be included within the Down’s Syndrome Act statutory guidance.
“It is crucial this guidance is fit for purpose so we can ensure people with Down’s syndrome can access the support they need to thrive in their community,” she told the Daily Express at the time.
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Special educational needs and disability funding is an issue “close to my heart” she said previously, as the aunt of someone with Down’s syndrome. In 2020 she warned that special schools in her constituency were struggling under the weight of admissions and in need of funding to expand.
Investment was also uppermost in the minds of the union leaders as Keegan assumed her new role.
“When chancellor, Rishi Sunak was the architect of a wholly inadequate support package for post-pandemic education recovery and has refused to fully fund pay rises which have in any case not kept pace with inflation,” said Bousted.
“He has also presided over years of real-terms cuts to school and college funding, which makes the job of heads so much more difficult.
“It can only be hoped that the new education secretary recognises these challenges and fights the corner of beleaguered staff as well as parents and pupils.”
For the ASCL, Barton said: “We would urge [Keegan] to focus on what matters most by ensuring schools and colleges have enough money, teachers and support staff to deliver the education that children and young people need and deserve.
“Without these essential resources, every other ambition and target is meaningless and educational standards are at risk.”
I know that talent is spread equally around the country and I will work tirelessly to ensure opportunity is also – Gillian Keegan
Gillian Keegan back story:
Born 13 March 1968 in Leigh, Lancashire
Attended primary school in Yorkshire before moving to Knowsley, Merseyside
Went to a comprehensive secondary school – St Augustine of Canterbury, Huyton – before leaving at 16 with 10 O-levels
After becoming an apprentice at a local electronics factory, she was sponsored to study a degree in business at Liverpool John Moores University, and later took a Sloan Fellowship Master’s degree at London Business School
Prior to entering parliament in 2017, Keegan spent almost 30 years living and working in the manufacturing, banking and IT sectors