Grammar schools? My focus is on other children, says Keegan

Liz Truss’s plan to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks dead in the water after the new education secretary said she was focused on pupils in “comprehensive education”.

Gillian Keegan’s predecessor Kit Malthouse had been asked by the ex-prime minister to draw up plans for new grammar schools in England.

Asked about the policy on Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast, new education secretary Gillian Keegan said “we’ve got to focus on the 90-odd per cent who don’t get to go”.

“The thing about grammar schools is 90-odd per cent of kids just never get to go to one. There was no grammar school anywhere near Knowsley [where she went to school]. Someone will find one now, but I didn’t know about it if it existed.

“What I’m focused on is the 90-odd per cent who will go to comprehensive education, like I did.

“I’m not against them – people who went to grammar school see them as a life-changing moment, and they have changed lives like my apprenticeship changed lives, so people love them. But we’ve got to focus on the 90-odd per cent who don’t get to go.”

New prime minister Rishi Sunak made supportive noises towards new grammar schools during his previous leadership bid, but never made a clear commitment about whether he would repeal the ban on new ones.

Tackling inflation is ‘number one’ priority

One of Keegan’s first tasks in the role will have been to finalise the Department for Education’s bid for money from the Treasury. The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is expected to make a financial statement on November 17.

The new education secretary said the government needed to “tackle inflation and bring it under control”.

“If we don’t, any spending decision that’s made, any, whether it’s up or down, any of it will all get eaten by inflation. So the number one thing you have to do is you need to get inflation under control. Otherwise all the other numbers are kind of irrelevant.”

She pointed to a £4 billion cash-terms increase in school funding allocated at the last spending review, which she said there was a “real recognition that we really did need to invest in education”.

However, as pointed out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, even with the settlement, rising inflation will leave school budgets 3 per cent lower in real-terms than in 2010

Keegan claimed school standards “have gone up massively since 2010”.

“So you say about the money going down, but the standards have gone up massively. So it’s not all about money – money’s important – but it is about the teaching, and our teachers are fantastic and they just want to get better and better.”

‘It’s not all about money’

However, she said she would “put the case for education”, adding the funding situation was “so difficult, wherever you go”.

“But you can still improve things massively. The answer to every problem is not more money. It is helpful for certain things and investing in things, because clearly you have to pay money.

“But there is a big quality question which…we brought that lens to education and Nick Gibb in particular has done a brilliant job with Michael Gove and others to get our standards really high.”

With a general election expected in 2023 or 2024, Keegan is short of time and money to enact reforms.

But when asked what she wanted her legacy in the job to be, her first thought was of her old brief as skills minister.

“It’s the reform of our technical education and making sure everyone has access to high-quality apprenticeships,” she said.

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