24 Jun 2024

Education secretary Gillian Keegan on the Conservative betting scandal


We were joined by the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan.

Cathy Newman: We saw the prime minister pretty angry about the betting allegations in that head to head, the election showdown, as it’s being called. I just want to quote to you what Tory candidate James Cracknell said, he compared your party to, quote, “a shower of s***”. Unforgivable abuse of trust, he said these betting allegations were. You’re no stranger to expletives, do you have the same sort of sentiments?

Gillian Keegan: No, I think we do need to let due process go, to prove what’s happened. But I can see why the prime minister is angry. It’s really, really, really unhelpful. Every single programme, when you’re trying to come on and talk about all the good things we’ve got, the fact that the country faces a real choice. There’s a man with a plan, a man who’s going to lower your taxes and another one who’s going to push them up, all the really important stuff. And we end up talking about something that will not be a long-term feature in terms of the campaign. So of course it’s distracting and of course it’s annoying. But I do think that people are entitled to due process.

Cathy Newman: You’re trying to sort of brush it off a little bit, but I just want to…

Gillian Keegan: Not really, just it’s independent. Someone else is going to do it, right, so I’m not personally involved.

Cathy Newman: I’m just getting a sense of how you feel about it personally. You grew up in a working-class household. Do people who grew up in Knowsley in Merseyside where you did, do they think that, like Partygate, this is kind of one rule for them, the people in power, and another for us?

Gillian Keegan: On the doorsteps so far it hasn’t been raised with me. So I do think there’s probably a bit of a difference between what people are talking about in their front rooms and what we’re talking about in the Westminster bubble. But for sure, certainly from my business world when I worked for nearly 30 years in business, there were many strict rules about what you could do, what you could invest in, what you know, and I do wonder whether we need to look at this and whether there’s more that we need to do to make sure that people aren’t placing political bets when you’re involved in politics. Even if there’s nothing wrong.

Cathy Newman: Will you ban them?

Gillian Keegan: It’s not for me to say, but…

Cathy Newman: It sounds like that’s your opinion.

Gillian Keegan: I think I would be willing to look at that, because the test that you’re sort of applying is the test of like my mum and dad, old people in their front room now, in Knowsley. And yeah, the test for them is probably if it looks bad, then it could be bad. So I think that that’s something I would be willing to look into. And not just because of this incident, but just because it would be helpful for everybody to say this is something you shouldn’t do, this would be stupid to do, this would look bad and you shouldn’t be doing it. So I think that’s probably the area that if we’re going to take some lessons on this afterwards.

Cathy Newman: Maybe under a different leader, maybe even yourself. Who knows? If you win your seat. You said this has proved a distraction from the policies you want to talk about. So let’s talk about your patch, because the prime minister did single out the importance of education in what we heard in the Sun debate. So why then, if it’s so important, does your manifesto acknowledge that you could cut overall school funding by £3.5 billion?

Gillian Keegan: No. Basically we have increased school funding to the highest in our history. Since I’ve been education secretary, the first thing was 2 billion more, which I literally got the first five weeks of being on the job. And then we got another billion the following year. So we’ve always funded schools at the right level.

Cathy Newman: Not always, but you’ve caught up now.

Gillian Keegan: As well as developing, as you know, last time we were on we talked about it, more special educational needs schools, a whole free school programme to develop 60,000 more places, none of which was done under the last Labour government. They like talking about the past, but they actually had fewer places at the end of their time.

Cathy Newman: That’s a very long time ago.

Gillian Keegan: It is, and by the way, that’s what they keep talking about. So I agree we should talk about the future. We were halfway through building those and the capital programmes, the other stuff we’ve got. But the investment that’s gone into education, at all levels, is in our country’s history quite astonishing, including free childcare or funded childcare.

Cathy Newman: But I’m asking specifically about your manifesto because the IFS has run its slide rule over it, as you know, and they say that because pupil numbers are set to fall by 400,000 and your pledges to protect per pupil spending, that could actually mean there’s a £3.5 billion cut in total school spending by 2028. You know that’s the small print.

Gillian Keegan: What the IFS has said is that taxation levels will be lower under the Conservatives as opposed to Labour. So they’ve done some analysis. They’ve baked in the plans and they’ve done that.

Cathy Newman: Let’s not stray to taxation, this has to do with pupils falling and you’re committing, it sounds good doesn’t it, per pupil spending. But overall schools are going to have billions less.

Gillian Keegan: Right, but we do have a formula which looks at all aspects of this, which looks at the per pupil stuff, but also for smaller rural schools looks at other aspects as well. So the formula is there to be able to cope with. We always get rises and falls. Since 2010, we have built and delivered a million new school places because of that demographic bulge. And then, of course, the bulge works through and these are just cycles that happen all the time in our school system. And all the time we deal with the numbers going up and the numbers going down. Now it is going to be a period when the numbers will be going down, particularly at primary, and that will go through to secondary later on. But that’s what the formulas will be there to deal with.

Cathy Newman: But that formula means that there’s billions less to, for example, hire teachers. And there is a recruitment crisis, as you know, but you’re not even matching Labour’s very timid promise of 6,500 new teachers.

Gillian Keegan: Since 2010, we’ve actually delivered 27,000 more teachers in our schools and 3,000 just in the last two years, and 59,600 more teaching assistants without damaging the independent sector, which 40% of our special educational needs provision is through that sector. That is a pernicious policy that will have completely the wrong impacts. It will put more pressure on state schools and it’ll disrupt children. I have children at the heart of what I do, and it will disrupt children in those schools. So it’s the wrong thing to do. To make sure that we solve the problem, the problem which is to get more maths teachers, we have raised the starting salary to £30,000 and we put £6,000 premium on for maths teachers, for science teachers, for engineering, technology teachers, for modern foreign languages and other shortage occupations. So we’ve already put that in place from September last year and that is starting to have an impact. That’s how you solve that problem. That is a proper plan to solve that problem, not disrupting another sector that’s got nothing to do with it. And you don’t need to do that to actually get more maths teachers.

Cathy Newman: Just one final question. When you see Rishi Sunak trying his best, asking whether the fight has left him. You look at all the crises and calamities of this campaign. Do you feel a bit sorry for him?

Gillian Keegan: Everybody who wants to be leader of this country, or prime minister of any country, is going to go through massive, massive difficulties. Look at all the things that have been thrown at us. Not only the pandemic, but also wars, etc. If you want to lead and you want to lead your country, you have to be resilient. You have to deal with all of those, and you sometimes have to deal with things that are very unfair. What it is is about having a plan, thinking through the options and then having the credibility to deliver them. And that’s what he’s proven again and again. And he’s also proven it’s working. Getting inflation down now to 2 per cent, something that everybody said would take another year. He’s done it. He’s done it by taking the right actions. And that’s all you can do. The world’s a difficult place and you need proven leaders to be able to lead us through.