At the end of Sam Gyimah’s first year at Oxford University his finances were in a mess. His student grant was gone and the rent on his Oxford college room was due. He simply couldn’t afford to pay.
Under the rules of Somerville College, the PPE student – who had arrived at Oxford from a state comprehensive – could have been asked to leave for not settling his debts.
“I got approached by the bursar of the college asking what’s going on and I had to ‘fess up that I was actually having difficulties,” said Mr Gyimah, now 38 and childcare minister since David Cameron’s July reshuffle.
“So they converted my entire rent for while I was there into a loan which I subsequently paid when I graduated. Since then I’ve been involved with the college helping raise bursary funds for disadvantaged students.”
Not all of Mr Gyimah’s frontbench colleagues will have endured similar spells of undergraduate penury. But Mr Gyimah is not your typical Tory minister.
Born in the UK in 1976 in Beaconsfield to Ghanian parents, his father was a GP and his mother a nurse. When he was six years old his parents split up and his mother returned to Ghana with Gyimah and his younger brother and sister while his father remained in the UK.
For the next 10 years Gyimah attended a state school in Ghana before returning to the UK to take his GCSEs and A-levels at Freman College, a state comprehensive in Hertfordshire.
“The big thing in Ghana is a strong sense that if you failed in your education that was it,” he said. “There was no system… to give you support later on, there really wasn’t much of a second chance so there was a big emphasis in… this is your life chance and you have got to take it.
“On the flip side though, being inquisitive about the world around you and really challenging ideas and critical thinking... a lot of that I got from my school over here. I think I am fortunate to have benefited from both.”
Giving his first national newspaper interview since being appointed as childcare minister, Mr Gyimah revealed the latest findings of a long-running Government-funded longitudinal study which has tracked youngsters since 1997 to see how early years education affects their later lives.
The MP for East Surrey said he was excited by the findings of the Effective Pre-school, Primary Education (EPPE) project showing that high quality early years education boosts students’ eventual GCSE results by seven grades.
“The research shows that our current policy position is supported by the evidence rather than being an ideological crusade.”
Since 2010, the Coalition has extended the free entitlement to 15 hours of early years education a week to all three and four year olds and most recently to two year olds, with 40 per cent of this age group from the most deprived backgrounds now eligible.
Mr Gyimah says his own background has formed a key part of his vision for his job at the Department of Education. After Oxford, he joined the graduate scheme of Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, advising companies on mergers and acquisitions. He left after five years – “banking was never a passion of mine but I needed to pay off my debts” – and set up a series of small businesses specialising in training and recruitment, being voted CBI Entrepreneur of the Future in 2005.
In his job as childcare minister he says his key aim is to provide more affordable high quality childcare while also tackling the attainment gap which can leave children from poor backgrounds behind by the time they start school.
In his own life he credits his mother for her “forceful” determination to instil in her son a love of reading, and a history teacher at Freman College who offered to help him prepare for his Oxford interview after school.
“That, I guess was one of the crucial times in my life when a teacher and their support of me made a huge difference to what happened to me.” For almost a decade after he graduated, Mr Gyimah, a former president of the Oxford Union, had no involvement in politics. But when David Cameron became party leader he decided to put himself forward as a Conservative candidate, having been a party member since university. He stood unsuccessfully in council elections in Camden, north London, in 2006 before being elected as an MP in 2010.
He describes Cameron as “inspirational” and says his “message of the Conservative Party being aspirational and representing modern Britain was one that chimed with me.”
Mr Gyimah, who is married to Nicky, a New Zealander who works in corporate responsibility, recently became a father for the first time. His son is now five months old.
“It is very exciting to be in this job because I know the role education has played in my own life and now I have the opportunity to show how it can make a difference in the lives of others.”