Gavin Williamson: Skills, jobs and freedom. My priorities for this week’s Queen’s Speech – and the year ahead.

14 May

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.

Neil O’Brien: Johnson should instruct a team of Ministers to wage war on woke

21 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Every day brings fresh examples of the woke revolution rolling through western institutions.

The last couple of weeks saw Edinburgh University ‘cancelling’ the great Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, taking his name off one of its buildings. The BBC broadcasting a comedian joking about killing white people. The Parliamentary authorities considering making MPs undertake “unconscious bias training”. The Natural History Museum reviewing displays relating to Charles Darwin, because the voyage of the Beagle could be seen as “colonialism”. The SNP administration in Edinburgh trying to push through a “Hate Crime” law – despite being warned by everyone from the Police Federation to comedians and novelists that it threatens free speech.

In the US, where the woke agenda is further advanced, it was announced that films must now hit diversity quotas to be eligible to win an Oscar.  The English department at the University of Chicago announced it will admit only those graduate students who plan to work in Black Studies.

I’ve written before about what’s wrong with the woke agenda, but others have put it better than me, and in response to the woke revolution, there’s now a diverse group of thinkers pushing back.

Ed West and Douglas Murray have chronicled the excesses of wokery in books that are funny as well as perceptive.  Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have explained the origins of the woke agenda in the “critical theory” sweeping universities over recent decades.  Tom Holland, though not a political writer, explains how much the woke agenda owes (without realising it) to Christianity.

For me, one of the most compelling critiques is by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, two liberal professors in the US.

They are worried the woke agenda isn’t just undermining basic liberal ideas like free speech and debate, but encouraging younger people to think in ways that are damaging.

They diagnose three bad ways of thinking which have become engrained in US universities: a belief that young people are emotionally fragile and have to be protected from ideas they might find upsetting; a belief that you should always trust your emotions, prioritising emotion over reason; and forms of us-versus-them thinking which divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with no in-betweens.

As Haidt and Lukianoff write, making universities into ‘safe spaces’ with no intellectual diversity is setting people up to fail: students don’t get used to disagreeing reasonably; or understanding that people who don’t agree with you may not be evil. As someone pointed out: you don’t help someone get strong by taking the weights out of the gym for them.

Their book contains hair-raising accounts of the kind of protests and madness this agenda has led to in US universities, increasingly a world of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘no-platforming’ and everyone walking on eggshells for fear of committing ‘microagressions.’

While this may seem remote to us living in Britain and not working in universities, the truth is that ideas from the US relentlessly percolate into the UK.

Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests in London, or British teenagers referring to the British police as “Feds”, ideas always blow over from across the Atlantic, so what happens in the US today will likely happen here tomorrow.

I find the woke agenda alarming because it promises a future very different from the one I grew up hoping for. When I was a teenager the future was going to be that we would be increasingly colour-blind.  That people would be treated as individuals, not members of races.  That everyone was capable of fitting into our shared modern, western culture.

Instead, wokeism tells us we should increasingly see each other as members of different races.  That ethnic minorities can’t assimilate into a modern, western culture because that they are (in some ill-defined way) incompatible with that culture.  That young people from ethnic minorities should be on their guard at all times, because they live in a culture which seeps racism from every pore.

Worst of all, it tells us that we must stay in our lane.  That we can’t enjoy another culture, because that’s “cultural appropriation.” That values like working hard or objectivity or the nuclear family are characteristics of white people, not others.

I’m not the first to say it (indeed there’s comedy sketches about it) but in the same way that the extreme left and extreme right are kind of similar, the woke agenda and the racist one have some powerful similarities.

If we think the woke agenda is damaging, divisive and illiberal, what can we do about it?

There’s now a number of campaign groups dealing with different aspects of it. The Free Speech Union does what it says on the tin. The Campaign for Common Sense brings a thoughtful take to the big questions raised by the woke agenda. The Equiano Project and “All In Britain” promote grown-up, non-hysterical discussion about race and diversity.

But what should we do as a Party and a Government?

While the Prime Minister is quite right to speak out on absurdities like the Last Night of the Proms saga, he simply can’t be everywhere, since he has a virus to fight, an economy to save and a Brexit deal to land. So the Government needs to empower a minister, or group of ministers, to lead and deal with this.

Different solutions are possible in different fields. For example, in the civil service, government has more control.  The Government could end programmes like “unconscious bias training” which don’t work and waste money, but have official backing and are compulsory for all staff in many departments.  The other day, it was revealed that the Ministry Of Defence has more diversity and equality officers than the Royal Navy has warships. Do we need so many people in such roles in the public sector?

In other fields like broadcasting, universities and cultural institutions, government has less direct control. Ministers like Oliver Dowden and Gavin Williamson have rightly rapped institutions over the knuckles when they have done things that are unacceptable.

But as well as intervening, government also needs to communicate why this agenda is wrong and divisive, and what it opposes.

Margaret Thatcher could not intervene personally in every departmental squabble.  But she didn’t’ have to. Civil servants didn’t have to wonder what her view on an issue would be. You knew. Because she took time to make arguments of principle, again and again.

That’s what’s needed now. One common theme in many woke rows is that people in positions of leadership simply don’t understand where the boundaries are.

For example, permanent secretaries of various government departments tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Civil Service Race Forum attacks government, claiming “many anti BAME policies originated in Whitehall.” Several department’s intranets have promoted highly contentious material about “white privilege” and Britain’s “systemic racism.”

Officials need to understand that they are not posting neutral stuff that everyone agrees on, but one side of a political argument.

When the British Library promoted materials to staff suggesting they should back a campaign by Diane Abbott, how could its leadership not spot that they were violating the rules on political neutrality?

The truth is we all live in bubbles, and if you run a large arts organisation in London most of the people you know probably have a certain world view. Such people need to be reminded that the taxpayers who pay their wages don’t all agree, and they have an obligation to be neutral.

To get them to understand where the boundaries are, government needs to set them out clearly and wholeheartedly.  The Prime Minister has even bigger battles to fight. But he should empower a minister to lay down the law, and wage war on woke.