The speech made by Gillian Keegan, the Secretary of State for Education, in Manchester on 2 October 2023.
Conference – it’s a real honour to address you today.
40 years ago, less than 40 miles away from here, sat in a failing comprehensive school in Knowsley,
I could never have imagined myself standing here today.
Growing up in Huyton, the constituency of Harold Wilson – the influence of the Labour Party was everywhere around me, including my own family.
My great grandma, a proud lifelong member of the Labour Party. My grandad a miner and member of the NUM.
In my office on my desk sits my grandad’s miners’ lamp – a daily reminder of where I’m from, and why I became an MP.
So being a working class girl from Liverpool, I often get asked:
“Why on earth are you a Conservative?”
Well, here’s why.
The Conservative Party is the party that helped my grandparents buy their council houses.
It is the party that stood up to the destructive force of the Unions in the 70s and the 80s.
This party aspired, for me and my family to have a better future,
and was willing to take the hard decisions to get us there.
That’s because we are a party that believes in giving people a hand-up, not a hand-out.
And as the Prime Minister says – education is our silver bullet.
Now, it is often said that talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t.
I know that’s true because I have lived it.
92% of my classmates left my Knowsley Comprehensive school with less than the five O-Levels – many without a single qualification.
Those kids that I sat next to every day for five years were as bright as anyone I’ve met ever since.
It’s not that they couldn’t do it – they were let down.
Education is the way we make sure that doesn’t happen.
And every day my brilliant Ministerial team – Nick Gibb, Rob Halfon, David Johnston and Diana Barran – who are fantastic – are focused on making the choices that will lead to a brighter future for our children.
There are so many places where this Conservative government is making the difference, so let’s start with childcare.
In my business life, I’ve seen woman after woman have to choose between their career and having a family – and usually their career lost.
These were women who were top of their class, got the highest grades, the best starting jobs – and then had to watch the opportunities that used to be there disappear, watch their careers end prematurely.
And the impact on our economy, it’s massive.
And Labour admired this problem for years. 13 years of Labour delivered only 12 and a half hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds.
Less than one hour per year of office.
This Government has already massively expanded the offer but will go further by introducing 30 hours free of childcare for working parents from the end of maternity leave until their child goes to school.
It is giving mums, and dads, back their choice.
And to be clear this is the most comprehensive and generous childcare package in our country’s history.
It’s the Conservative Party taking long-term decisions to support families.
We have completely transformed our school standards, making sure all kids go to a good school.
We’re determined to crush the soft bigotry that says people like me shouldn’t succeed.
A single teacher can change your life. For me that teacher was Mr. Ashcroft who stayed behind after school to teach me engineering, when girls couldn’t study it.
Every day, every teacher, every one of them is changing a life.
And to them I say thank-you from the bottom of my heart.
And I am particularly grateful to those who have worked night and day with us, to ensure that children are able to learn face-to-face, despite the challenges of RAAC.
Even though the pandemic set us back, our education standards are recovering and they are rising.
Our plan is working.
We’ve reformed the school system, we’ve reformed teacher training, we’re reformed the curriculum.
Our phonics checks are ensuring children leave school able to read properly.
Our free schools are driving up choice and standards.
Our academies are unleashing heads to run education in a way that works for children, not for bureaucrats.
And the results speak for themselves – our children are now the best in the West for reading. It’s a phenomenal achievement and I’m determined that it’s Maths next.
I’m so proud of our children for what they’ve achieved.
And our reforms are working despite the opposition.
Labour and the Lib Dems called our plans “dangerous and ideological.”
They said our literacy drive was “dull.”
Time and time again they chose short-term policies over long-term decision-making.
And the results? Whilst we’re rising in the international league tables, Labour-run Wales and SNP-run Scotland are slipping behind.
They play the same old politics.
We make the decisions that improve things for our children.
Today, one of the biggest issues facing children and teacher is grappling with is the impact of smartphones in our schools.
The distraction, the disruption, the bullying.
We know that teachers are struggling with their impact and need support.
So today we’re recognising the amazing work that many schools have already done in banning mobile phones, and we’re announcing that we will change guidance so that all schools follow their lead.
Because the focus should be on children learning. In. The. Classroom.
Children need to be in school. Now, that shouldn’t be controversial, but during the strikes Labour could never bring themselves to say so.
In fact, many of their MPs joined the picket lines.
Perhaps because the unions fund their campaigns, fund their party.
But it’s outrageous and I’ve seen first hand what happens when Labour puts politics ahead of people.
Growing up in Liverpool under Derek Hatton, it has certainly left a scar.
When Kinnock said that “you can’t play politics with people’s lives” he was talking about my family’s jobs, my friends’ houses, and everybody’s services around me.
Not that Hatton cared.
I actually met him once. It was at the opening of a wine bar when I was a teenager.
There he was, larger than life, his Jag and driver outside, handing out glasses of champagne as we walked in.
Yep, you heard it right Conference – I was given my first glass of champagne by a socialist.
I was taking recently to a Labour MP about Delco, the car factory I had started worked in aged 16.
She told me with pride she had visited it – as part of a flying picket.
I looked at her and told her “you and your mates’ cost everybody their jobs.”
Because that’s the problem– they thought you could strike your way to a better job, and I thought it’s common sense that we’d have better jobs if the factory remained open.
And when the factory closed, they were off to their next demo whilst ordinary people were left to pick up the pieces.
Now, common sense is what guides me.
It’s common sense to say that parents should be able to see what their children are being taught in schools.
It’s common sense that girls should have separate toilets from boys.
And it’s common sense that earning and learning is a brilliant route into a career.
It makes no sense to set an arbitrary target of 50% of kids going to university, when we need 100% of kids getting great opportunities.
And University is not the only option.
My apprenticeship changed my life and thanks to this Government, have changed five and a half million lives since 2010.
Some people view them as second rate.
But my mission is to change that – to make apprenticeships the way you become a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, even a space engineer.
Many will still want go to university, and that will be the right choice for them.
And if they do, they should get the education that they have paid for. That’s common sense, right?
Apparently not – because over recent years we’ve seen constant strikes, we’ve seen students not getting the education they’ve paid for and some not even having their degrees marked.
This is outrageous behaviour.
So today, I am announcing that we will consult to introduce minimum service levels in universities, so that they have the tools to make sure that students get the teaching they deserve.
So when I go home to Liverpool and they ask “why are you a Conservative” – well, here’s the answer.
With the Conservatives, you get the childcare that allows you to have a family and a career.
With the Conservatives, you get the schools where standards are relentlessly rising rather than going backwards under Labour.
With the Conservatives, you get an apprenticeship that is a route to a great career, not a dead end with an enormous student debt.
With the Conservatives you get the opportunity to go as far as you can.
And we are the only party that will make the long-term decisions to give our children the bright future that they deserve.
Conference, thank you very much.