Gavin Williamson is Secretary of State for Education, and is MP for South Staffordshire.
The election results last week demonstrated that today’s Conservative party commands support across the length and breadth of the nation. Whether it was in Devon, Dudley or Durham, the voters who first put their faith in the Prime Minister in 2019 resoundingly confirmed that the Conservatives are they party they trust to deliver results, to create opportunity and to stand up for Britain.
And with the first part of our mandate delivered – to Get Brexit Done – attention is rightly turning to our commitment and determination to level up the nation.
The Education Bills that her Majesty announced in the Queen’s Speech are at the living, beating heart of that agenda. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will deliver fundamental reforms to our college and university system, making it as easy to study a vocational course, at any age, as it is to go to university.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will put an end once and for all to the chilling effect of cancel culture in universities.
And alongside this legislation, we will be continuing to drive improvement in our schools, completing the revolution begun in 2010. We are supporting all schools to join strong multi-academy trusts, embedding a consistent culture on discipline and behaviour, and working with the Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, to develop an ambitious, long-term plan for recovery – on top of the more than £2 billion we have already invested for this purpose.
At the heart of our reforms is the new Skills Bill. Ever since I became Education Secretary, my mantra has been Further Education, Further Education, Further Education.
For too long in this country, technical and vocational education has played second fiddle to university. It’s left our economy short of the vital technical skills they need, our employers dependent on importing labour and too many of our citizens left behind by a culture that values academic qualifications above all else.
Our new Lifelong Loan Entitlement will change that, giving everyone the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime – at their local college, or at university. This is levelling up in action, and it will turbocharge our economy by getting people back into jobs and Britain working again.
In addition to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the Bill contains measures to strengthen our great further education colleges, the engines of opportunity that lie at the centre of our towns. New legislation will put employers at the heart of our skills reforms, joining forces with further education colleges to ensure young people can be confident they are taking high-quality, work-relevant courses that will get them the good jobs they deserve.
We are going to make sure there is a better balance between the skills that local employers want from their workforce and those that are being taught by colleges so that young people have a valuable and top-quality alternative to university.
Rather than encourage people to leave home to find a rewarding career, we intend to empower them to find fulfilling and rewarding work wherever they live, invigorating communities and driving economic growth, up and down the country.
It is a natural progression to the ground-breaking reforms we have already been rolling out, such as our T level and apprenticeship programmes, and which will deliver the skilled individuals to boost the post-pandemic economy and bring down unemployment.
And finally, the Bill will strengthen the ability of the Office for Students to crack down on low quality courses, delivering on our manifesto commitment. Our universities, which have played such a vital role in developing the vaccines and treatments to beat Covid-19, must be a fundamental part of levelling up through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.
The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt – and our reforms will open the way for them to embrace the opportunities offered by degree apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications, modular learning and our flagship Institutes of Technology.
Whether in the Tory shires or the Red Wall, the people of Britain have more in common than not. They want good jobs, better living standards and to own their own home. They want to know that they can trust their local school to give their children a good education, that their streets at safe at night, they can get a GP appointment when they need one. And, fundamentally, they want a society that offers a fair deal, where hard work pays off and the talented can get ahead, whatever their background.
And, as they demonstrated in 2016, and again in 2019, they believe in Britain. They know that while we may not always be perfect, this country has historically been a force for good in the world, and continues to be one of the best, fairest and most tolerant places to live and work.
The citizens of this country care deeply about injustice, rightly abhor racism, and increasingly recognise that love is love – but they have little patience with the increasingly intolerant and puritanical strand of the far left, which seems to be perpetually ashamed of our flag, our nation and our history. They have no truck with nonsense such as the denigration of Churchill, the ‘cancelling’ of our great naval heroes such as Drake and Nelson, or the renaming of buildings named after David Hume, a pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, or the reforming Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who amongst other things implemented universal primary education for our children.
Our universities have a long and proud history of being spaces in which differing views or beliefs can be expressed without fear of censure, in recent years this has come under threat. There are increasing concerns of a chilling effect, with students and academics who dare to disagree with the campus consensus facing abuse, intimidation and even threats of investigation, dismissal or expulsion.
While the majority of academics and students believe in free speech, too many universities have allowed a small minority of activists to determine what can and cannot be said, for example by making law-abiding student societies pay security costs to invite mainstream speakers, rather than standing up to those willing to threaten violence to shut down speech.
I wrote a year ago that if universities didn’t protect free speech, the Government would. That is why we have introduced our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, delivering on our manifesto commitment to protect free speech and academic freedom in universities. The Bill will strengthen existing duties on universities to promote free speech, extend these duties to students’ unions and establishing a director in the Office for Students to protect and promote these rights – including levying fines where necessary.
The programme of reforms my Department is implementing delivers for citizens across our electoral coalition. It rewards the new voters who have put their faith in us for the first time, trusting us to deliver the opportunity, prosperity and better lives that Labour has so sadly failed to provide for them. And it reassures our traditional voters that the torch of liberty, democracy and freedom burns as brightly within the Conservative party today as it ever did. As the Prime Minister has said, we are going to unite and level up our nation, and education is at the core of that mission.