Oral statement to Parliament

Association of Colleges annual conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Thank you Kirsty [Wark] and good afternoon everyone. WB Yeats said that education was “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a …

Thank you Kirsty [Wark] and good afternoon everyone.

WB Yeats said that education was “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”; I know you share my burning passion for practical learning and that is why we can feel proud and excited about the Government’s new strategy for skills.

Let’s together light the fire of learning across the nation. The documents that Vince Cable and I launched here yesterday are among the most important documents that the coalition Government has so far produced. Because they are about making sure the power of learning counts.

And the first thing I want to do this afternoon is to pay tribute to Vince’s unstinting support in my work. We share - along with Michael Gove - a common vision of the value and the potential of further education and skills.

We believe that, unless they are strong, it will be far harder to build a fairer, more cohesive and more prosperous Britain. And we all see ourselves, not just as the temporary political custodians of further education, but as active members of a diverse further education movement with a great history and a glorious future.

In the past too few policy makers have understood sufficiently that F.E. is bigger than a certain number of buildings with a certain number of teachers and learners and a certain amount of money attached. Further Education is the lighting of many fires. From brightly burning ambition to the warm glow of achievement.

I firmly believe that, just as I believe that the system’s success or failure is best measured not according to how many learners it recruits, but how many jobs it builds; how many communities it enhances; how much it inspires.

Although learning is vital for economic success, it’s also about providing greater opportunities, breaking down the barriers that create and perpetuate disadvantage. It’s about invigorating people to think about how they can make more difference in their communities and how they can play their part in renewing our society.

Vince spoke about this yesterday and it’s also the theme of much of what I want to say to you today.

But I want to start not with the work of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but with that of the other department in which I’m proud to serve, the Department for Education. Because I am delighted to be here today in my capacity as joint Minister.

Firstly, I was delighted that, despite difficult circumstances and tough decisions, we were able to confirm in the Spending Review that we will maintain our commitment to full participation of 16 and 17 year olds in education and training, and to raising the participation age to 18 by 2015. That is crucial if we are to make opportunity more equal and reverse the widening gap between rich and poor.

I know that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, also sees the role of FE and Sixth Form Colleges in meeting that ambition as crucial. That is why we have already taken steps to ensure that you have the freedom to determine your curriculum offer and mix of provision to meet the needs of the young people who choose to attend your college.

And that is complemented by a vastly simpler funding system, cutting out the protracted planning that bedevilled previous systems; instead creating a responsive, demand led sector, in which funding follows learners.

I know you are anxious to know what the 16-19 spending settlement will mean for you and I can confirm that the Education Department will announce details before Christmas. Alongside increased freedom for colleges I want to emphasise the importance of collaboration. Working together for nation’s future, for the common good.

That’s about working closely with local authorities in promoting opportunities particularly for the most disadvantaged, but it’s also about increasing opportunities to work in school and college collaboration to develop cross-institutional approaches to vocational education.

I am delighted to be able to announce the Growth and Innovation Fund to which Government will contribute 50 million pounds with many more millions coming from business. This fund will support greater collaboration between employers and colleges. There are many fine examples of this already and we need to understand how that best practice can be encouraged.

There are also many examples of colleges sponsoring academies and we want to see more of that too. And I want colleges to grasp with both hands the opportunity offered by Lord Baker’s excellent work on UTCs.

Let’s build new technical schools across Britain. At last fulfilling that part of Rab Butler’s 1944 Act.

I welcome warmly Michael Gove’s invitation to Professor Alison Wolf to carry out an independent review of vocational education for under-19s.

I know that Professor Wolf has talked to many of you in the course of her work so far, and has been impressed by your commitment to making high quality vocational provision available to young people including through your collaborative work. I certainly look forward to reading her report, which the Department for Education expects to receive early next year.

Establishing a more coherent approach to qualifications will also help young people and their parents as they make choices about what and where to study post-16. Key to this will be young people’s access to expert, impartial and independent careers guidance.

I made a speech the week before last to the Institute of Careers Guidance, where I set out my vision for an all-age careers service.

Colleges will be able to work with the new all-age service to build on that the great work they already do. And we will make clear that we expect schools to take responsibility for securing access for their pupils to impartial, independent careers guidance, working with the all-age service or another licensed provider. For as W.H. Auden said “It takes little talent to see what lies under one’s nose, a good deal to know in which direction to point that organ.”

I know as well as you do that the history of post-compulsory education over the last half-century has been one of chop and change. Nowhere has this been more disruptive that in 16-19 education. That has meant that too often, post-19 education and training has been treated as if its primary purpose was to pick up the pieces of the failures of other parts of the system.

That’s not good enough. Indeed, it’s counter-productive. For, as I said earlier, real learning is inspirational.

The doors of a further education college should open the way towards a place at life’s top table, not a seat at the back of the class. They should make real the prospect of a more fulfilled life; a better job; or the opportunity to deepen knowledge by progressing to higher learning.

It’s that vision which underpins our strategy for skills.

At the heart of how we will put this into practice is our plan for apprenticeships; 250 million pounds more for 75,000 extra apprenticeships. An ambition to create more apprentices than ever before.

But, pivotal as they are, apprenticeships are not all we will do. They are just one aspect of a more equitable approach to sharing out the costs and benefits of training. Our plans also provide for fully subsidised provision for basic skills, training for young adults, and skills to help unemployed people to get and stay in sustainable work.

We will also part-fund training for people 24 and over at level 2 while also giving access to loans for those individuals aged 24 and over who wish to study at level 3, and higher. Devoting resource to where it’s needed most. With your help, we will get this right, we will ensure that the most vulnerable get the financial support without which they could not gain new skills.

Perhaps most importantly of all I want you to help me tackle the scandalous fact that one in seven of our young people is not in education, employment or training.

I’m know, too, that a lot of lip-service has been paid over the years to employer involvement in training. And we know where that led: Train to Gain with its immense deadweight cost.

What we must do now is to take a more realistic view of what’s needed and what’s worth paying for. The sort of realism that recognizes that those who reap the benefits of training must be prepared to share the costs. The sort of realism that graps that small employers are likely to need more help than larger ones to train their staff. And the sort of realism that, even when overall spending is falling, still fights for funds to create a new growth and innovation fund to support fresh employer-led skills initiatives..

Learners’ choices will be underpinned by the new Qualifications and Credit Framework, which gives much greater flexibility through new credit-bearing qualifications, helping learners to progress, and giving them, and employers, access to training in a way that meet their immediate needs.

We will also develop Lifelong Learning Accounts, encouraging individuals to learn, and keep on learning.

I want the accounts to drive a national community of learners with the desire to seek out knowledge and skills. Sharing their successes with others; and I want you to play your part in building bigger lives.

Another change will come with the intensification of colleges’ role as community assets. To help make sure that this happens, we will both protect and reform he budget for adult safeguarded learning.

Above all, in future the emphasis will be on the primacy of the relationship between colleges and their direct customers - individuals and businesses. Accountability will pass from Government to colleges’ local communities.

I am serious about devolving real power to get things done. So we intend to give greater freedom to colleges.

Freedom from the unnecessary bureaucracy and regulation that inhibits your ability to frame what you do to suit local learners and employers.
We seek to remove a raft of unnecessary regulations that dictate what you do, and how you should do it.

We intend to remove the legal necessity to promote economic and social well-being of the local area, and have regard to prescriptive guidance about consultation. Because what college worth its name needs a law to tell it to promote well being? Social and economic well being are your stock in trade.

And we are looking to make it easier for you to borrow to invest. We want to move towards creating a dynamic skills system which is lead by the colleges, who in turn work with learners and business to deliver the education and training provision they need.

I don’t pretend that change on this scale will be easy, nor that it won’t make demands on you. It will require new and creative thinking.

Representative bodies like this one will need to take collective responsibility for sector improvement, working through the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. I believe strongly in the professionalism of the sector, the importance of a qualified workforce, and power of peer to peer approaches in supporting quality improvement.

It will also mean colleges working together to reduce costs, for example through more efficient collaboration in the delivery of front and back office functions.

Though let me be clear there is a role for smaller, rural and specialist providers too. So rest assured I don’t see mergers as the only solution.

And the Government devolving power will not mean the Government absolving itself of its responsibilities. Where colleges are failing, we will act, opening up opportunities to others in the independent and private sector to get involved.

I don’t want to leave you today merely thinking that the Spending Review wasn’t as bad as some people expected - although it wasn’t.

Reform would have been desirable even if we hadn’t inherited an unsustainable fiscal deficit.

We have been planning change for years. And we built change on we learnt from you.

The strategy we have launched at this conference was not just the result of a long consultation over the summer, though many valuable submissions, including from the AoC, (more than 500 in all) have helped to inform our thinking.

As many of you know it is as much the result of a much longer period of consultation, of discussion, of deliberation, which began when David Cameron appointed me Shadow Minister, five years ago next month. Five years to build my understanding of the invaluable contribution made by FE to our economy and our society.

I know there is immense human capital in the sector. Yet the last Government infantilised FE. It directed, micro-managed and encumbered FE.

It’s time to treat you as grown ups. To set you free. Free from the technocrats; from full utilitarianism; from the stifling bureaucracy.

I want you to leave Birmingham excited by the prospect of change.

Know that at last there is a Government that understands Further Education, that prioritises skills. A Government that trusts you. My trust; learners trust.

Play your part in taking our movement forward. Be worthy of that trust.

Let none of us be content until everyone embraces our creed that, wherever you begin, whatever your background and whatever your circumstances, learning can make a difference; can ignite a fire.

Learning brightens lives and warms hearts.

So leave this conference with the glow of professionals at last trusted to do your best; to be your best.

Thank you.