The Apprentice in Sussex: How Gillian Keegan went from car factory apprentice to Chichester MP
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Gillian Keegan is an anomaly, she’ll say as much herself. Growing up in the working class town of Huyton, she now represents one of the most affluent constituencies in the country, and holds a senior post in a political party famously staffed by the rich, wealthy and the privately educated.
Unlike the majority of her colleagues, she left school (a Catholic comprehensive) at 16, the only pupil to do so with ten O-Levels, and pursued a decades-long career in business before turning to politics. Whether you vote for them or not, there’s no denying that Keegan defies several of the Tory party’s most enduring stereotypes – it’s a common refrain that politicians ‘haven’t worked a day in their lives’, but Keegan started out in the workplace. Rather than go to college after school, the future Secretary of State for Education apprenticed at a car parts factory in Kirkby.
"Most kids in my school left at 16, it was the kind of the most normal thing to do where I grew up, and my teachers told me an apprenticeship might be the best way to get ahead. The Six Form wasn’t up to much, and there was no college that was very good at the time,” she explained.
"I loved it. I remember the whole thing very vividly. I remember going to Marks and Spencers to get my first suit to start, I remember walking into the factory – that smell of metal before you clocked on. But I remember the people mostly. I loved the people. I think what people don’t understand about businesses is that they’re very nurturing. They want to help bring on the next generation.
“So I had a fantastic time. I got to go round the whole factory and, by the end of it, you really knew how a business fits together.”
It’s an experience she’s carried all through her political career. Gillian Keegan believes apprenticeships give young people a sense of diligence, practicality and self-reliance that’s hard to find outside the workplace, and she’s been working hard to promote them as an alternative way up the ladder.
“One of the things I was trying to do when I was Apprenticeships and Skills Minister and now as Secretary of State, is just broaden people’s understanding of what an apprenticeship is. It’s an earn-and-learn route to the same destination. You can do anything as an apprentice: we’ve recently signed off an apprenticeship for medical doctors. So, instead of going to university, they can start an apprenticeship and training from the age of 18.
"The university experience is different. You’re away from your parents, you’re in this new social setting and there’s a lot to get involved with, but the alternative is to work, to get paid, to avoid all that student debt, and do much the same thing, and maybe get on a little bit further early in your career."