Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, has defended her decision to take a vacation during the summer while new information about the use of dangerous concrete in school buildings emerged. She has also had to apologise for swearing after a television interview and complaining that “everyone else has sat on their arse” during the crisis.
Ms Keegan said three incidents of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) came to light while she was on holiday in Spain from August 25 to August 31, one in a commercial building, one in an educational “setting” and one in an English school.
The Raac crisis has affected 104 English schools, which have been told to close completely or in part due to concrete that is prone to collapse over time. Thousands of students have been inconvenienced as they return to class after the summer break.
Last year Ms Keegan replaced Kit Malthouse as education secretary after being appointed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. She is the fifth person to serve in the role in four months, the sixth in 14 months and the 10th since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.
The MP has always been vocal about educational rights in the UK. In 2019, she criticised the government for “playing catch-up” on mental health services for children. She said schools played a “vital role” in offering support and acknowledging “the signs when people need help”.
The Lancashire-born politician has a nephew with Down’s syndrome and has stressed how special educational needs and disability funding is an issue “close to her heart”. In 2020, she issued a warning that special schools in her district were experiencing overcrowding and an increase in admission requests, saying they required “financial investment to expand”.
Here’s everything you need to know about the education secretary.
Who is Gillian Keegan?
Ms Keegan is the MP for Chichester in West Sussex. She is the first politician from the county to serve in the role. She was previously minister of state for care at the Department of Health and Social Care.
The 55-year-old is the first education secretary to have left school at 16 since Labour’s Alan Johnson. He performed the role in 2006-2007.
After leaving school, she was an apprentice at Delco Electronics, a subsidiary of General Motors in Kirkby, Merseyside. She was sponsored to study a degree in business at Liverpool John Moores University and went on to do a Sloan Fellowship master’s degree at London Business School.
Before entering politics, Ms Keegan spent almost 30 years living and working abroad in the manufacturing, banking and IT industries. She was most recently chief marketing officer for Travelport, a travel technology company.
She became interested in politics as a teenager when she found the economic approach trade unions took to be “all powerful and made it very unattractive for inward investment”.
Ms Keegan lives in West Sussex with her husband, Michael, and has two stepsons.
Her father-in-law, Denis Keegan, was Conservative MP for Nottingham South.
What posts has she held before?
Ms Keegan was elected as an MP in June 2017 and again in 2019. She was a member of the public accounts select committee between September 2017 and December 2018. The committee examines government spending and holds officials and politicians accountable for the provision of public services.
In September 2018 she was appointed parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the Treasury. The role involved supporting Treasury ministers in their parliamentary and departmental responsibilities.
She became PPS to the defence secretary in January 2019. A few months later, she received another promotion to become the Home Secretary’s PPS, a position she held until August 2019.
At the Department for Health and Social Care, she was made the minister responsible for care in September 2021. Former prime minister Liz Truss then made her the minister for Africa in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in September 2022.
GCSE and A-level grading controversy
In August 2020, Ms Keegan was criticised for being on holiday during the GCSE and A-level grading controversy.
As a result of the pandemic, student examinations were cancelled and an alternative method was designed and introduced at short notice. This was to determine the grades to be awarded to pupils for that year, who were given grades based on teachers’ predictions.
Ms Keegan was also criticised for posting numerous holiday pictures on Instagram during this period.
She defended herself by claiming that she wasn't the minister in charge of GCSE and A-level exams.