Much has rightly been made that the Prime Minister is of Indian heritage and Hindu belief – the first British Asian to hold the highest political office in the land. A significant and historic moment for all of us who believe in diversity, inclusivity, and aspiration. A role model surely for all citizens of colour, giving encouragement to young people in the skills and education system that they can aim high – even if their skin is not white.
What has not caught the media’s attention in the same way (and yet is, I believe, just as powerful a testament to the changing cultural faces and social structures of contemporary Britain is that we have, for the first time ever, two women simultaneously holding the roles of education secretary and shadow education secretary. We have had women at the helm before at the Department of Education – in Conservative and Labour governments alike – but none has held office at the same time as a woman in the shadow counterpart role.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Gillian Keegan and Bridget Phillipson are both northern and working class – and as it happens both from Catholic heritage, whether practicing that faith or not. Their voices retain the unmistakable intonations of Liverpool and Sunderland respectively. A Scouser and a Georgie both wielding considerable power and influence in their political parties, in the country, and crucially in the education and skills system.
Both are role models for girls and young women from schools and communities across the north west and north east. Both come from working class backgrounds similar to thousands of young women in today’s schools, colleges, and training providers. They look and sound like our pupils, students, and apprentices – living examples of how education is a route out of poverty to prosperity, the road to self-improvement, career advancement and positions of significant national political authority.
Here’s the thing. Who was the apprentice? Stereotypically, and in ignorance of their different educational journeys, you might be inclined to think that the Conservative MP would have followed the Oxbridge path, while the Labour MP went through the traditionally working-class apprenticeship route. And you’d be wrong. Ever since her first outing on the post-16 education and skills scene as a junior minister, Keegan has made much of her comprehensive school credentials, apprenticeship, and real-life business experience, in contrast to the Oxbridge-educated Phillipson.
This is a happenstance to be lauded. We now have two high-profile, relatively young women leaders in education, defying old fashioned pigeon-holing – exemplars of social mobility in action, regardless, and in defiance of their familial affiliations. I welcome this because I think it gives hope to girls and young women that people that look and sound like them can make it to the top.
It is also good for post-16 educational practice. Although Keegan and Phillipson have different personal experiences of education, we can expect both to place post-16 skills investment at the heart of their policy implementation. I believe that apprenticeship reform, investment in technical skills and workforce development in FE Colleges and ITPs, and greater devolution of skills funding to local communities and devolved regions form the core of the agenda for post-16 skills over the next decade and that this is an agenda to which both are committed.
Both will address the Association of Colleges conference this week, so let’s see, and let’s welcome them as trailblazers for women, for the working classes, and for skills.