1905. That’s the year my great-grandmother left school. She was only 12, but for her that was the year that school was over and the world of work began. My grandmother was only 14 when she, in turn, got home from school one day only to be told by her mother that she would not be going back: a job had been found for her in Sheffield. My mother went to a secondary modern in Rotherham, and I too went to school in the town, near where my father worked as a steelworker. I was educated through the state system and then went on to go to university – the first person in my family to do so.
Without that education, I’d never have had a career in business or become a Cabinet minister writing this article today.
In her first speech as prime minister, standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, Theresa May set out the new government’s ambition to make Britain a country that works for everyone, not just for the privileged few.
From my own experience, that begins with education. It’s an incredible opportunity to have been appointed by the prime minister to be secretary of state at the Department for Education, which will now also include further education, apprenticeships, universities and skills. It gives me the chance to help build and improve the very state education system that gave me my start as a young person.
In my previous job as international development secretary, I made it our mission to make sure that children caught up in conflict or humanitarian crises still got the chance to learn and have an education, giving them the opportunity to build a better future for themselves and their country.
Now I have the chance to focus on our own country’s young people, and I come into this role with huge optimism. Over the years, I have met so many young people, especially in my own local community, and I have always been inspired by them. Their raw talent and energy gives us all hope for the future.
‘I was shaped by my teachers’
It is education and those at its very heart – teachers – that steadily unlock that potential, day by day, year by year. In lots of ways that I cannot possibly even begin to list, I was shaped so much more by my teachers than by the books that they gave me. Mr Tranter helped me to love and learn my French to the extent that a full 10 years later, arriving to work in Lausanne, Switzerland, I could remember so much, it was as if my last lesson had just been the day before. Through Mr Farringdon’s geography classes, I learned to understand the Peak District’s physical geography as well as its beauty, and it gave me an appreciation of the natural environment that will stay with me for the whole of my life.
There are too many of my teachers to list individually, but if any of you are reading this article, then I want to say a heartfelt “thank you”. Alongside my parents, family and friends, you are what made me. And my generation.
I know that there are many, many challenges facing teachers today, and many pressures on our education system.
Thank you to all those educators – and there have been lots of you – who have already been in touch with advice and suggestions on how best to get grips with this huge agenda.
Reflecting on it all, my aim is to work steadily and sensibly through all of those issues in as measured a way as possible, and to help us steer the right course. There is a lot to do; there are some big decisions to be taken. But in summary, I want today’s teachers, and today’s schools, to excite – and to instil – as much passion for learning as my teachers and schools did for me.
One welcome tweet to me said it was about “trust, competence, and care”. I completely agree. I will do my best. I am looking forward to working with teachers in our country to help ensure that together we give Britain’s children and young people the best possible start in life, wherever they are.
Justine Greening attended Oakwood Comprehensive School in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and studied economics at the University of Southampton
This is an article from the 29 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here