I want to begin, as I did this time last year, with a note of thanks. On that occasion, I took the opportunity to congratulate you for catering to the increasing numbers of adults taking basic skills courses - and, indeed, for the great strides you made in delivering apprenticeships. More on those in a moment.
Let me start with what’s been the main story of the year - the London Games - where the contribution of our FE sector was considerable. More than 8,000 students from 60 colleges were trained through the “Bridging the Gap” programme, coordinated by North Hertfordshire College, with over 4,000 finding work in security and stewarding roles. In the host boroughs, Hackney Community College led the effort to prepare unemployed residents for similar job opportunities. And on the field of play, someone has worked out that if the FE college and university graduates in Team GB were to constitute a separate country, they would have come seventh in both the Olympic and Paralympic medal tables.
I have to say that I’m also very encouraged by further increases in adult participation - 15 per cent on Skills for Life courses in English, 20 per cent in maths. All told, provisional data for the 2011/12 academic year reveal over 3.1 million learners aged 19 or over in government-funded further education - including the almost 700,000 people who benefitted from a community learning course. Then we have strong apprenticeship numbers, with more than half a million apprenticeship starts in 2011/12.
These successes are testament to your efforts. I also realise that you are having to manage change, some of it difficult: Community Learning Trust pilots underway; the introduction of adult loans from the start of the 2013/14 academic year; the latest round of the employer ownership pilots for apprenticeships. I want to express my own appreciation to the AoC for the constructive comments we received on the 24+ loans scheme, which led us to introduce additional measures to help students on Access to HE courses and disadvantaged groups.
Whenever visiting FE colleges I am always struck by the energy and entrepreneurial sprint of those who lead and work in them. Yet the feeling has remained that people in this country, and some politicians, regard further education as the poor relation to higher education. It explains why ministers and college principals have bandied around awkward phrases such as “parity of esteem” - almost willing school leavers, mature students and the general public to change their minds.
Things are changing, though - and I believe it’s time to stop agonising about negative perceptions. In our popular culture today, the contestants on Masterchef or Great British Bake Off receive infinitely greater exposure than the teams on University Challenge. We rightly admire craft and skill as much as - if not more than - knowledge.
The educational landscape is changing. By the end of this Parliament, we aim to have transformed the status of apprenticeships in this country. My ambition is that by 2015 an 18-year-old leaving school and weighing up the choice of degree versus apprenticeship would do so without factoring in social stigma - seeing them as different but of equal value in terms of experience, job prospects, value for money and earnings potential.
I want to make sure that skills provision in this country is of such quality that any lingering snobbery is removed from the equation.
Improving college facilities
The quality of facilities in FE should match the aspiration of the sector. I am very aware of the of legacy problems from past underinvestment in the FE estate. As college principals know, we have just confirmed the recipients of the third tranche of renewal grants to 56 more colleges - with Government putting up £110 million in this round alongside over £300 million of investment from the colleges themselves. I regret that at present we are only able to fun half the bids - but there will be future rounds. This money will be put to creating specialist facilities and modernising existing ones - new laboratories at Stratford-Upon-Avon College; a new creative industries building at Kingston College; a new arts centre at Burton and South Derbyshire College.
This programme, supporting an injection of £1 billion into the FE estate, is producing learning environments in which our lecturers can deliver an excellent education to their students. Sprucing up campuses can give a lift to entire communities - not least through the jobs associated with the remodelling and building work. Over the past three years, we have ensured that all FE colleges in England have had the opportunity to apply for some degree of grant funding. Last year, 244 colleges across England were successful in securing Renewal Grant funding. And this year, a further 150 colleges received support, with 56 of them securing up to £3 million for important building projects. I am grateful for the active support and participation of the AoC throughout the process of setting criteria, assessing applications from colleges and allocating resources.
FE, then is a sector that is expanding. Looking ahead, I see three main tasks in particular.
First, there must be no let-up in the drive to increase and improve apprenticeships.
Over the coming year, we’ll be focusing on making sure that all apprenticeships offer substantial new learning, and that the qualifications apprentices take are stretching and valued by employers. Doug Richard’s forthcoming recommendations will be important here. We’re going to continue increasing the number of higher level apprenticeships, to degree level and beyond, especially in priority sectors like engineering, construction and digital And we’re going to broaden the input of employers in all aspects of apprenticeships - with a special effort to get more SMEs involved.
The Government is also doing more to practise what it preaches - like my own department, where around 30 members of staff, all aged over 25, have signed up for apprenticeships, half of which are at Level 4. In future, we want to expand the scheme to include profession-specific apprenticeships.
The second task is improving social mobility. Here, much of the debate has concentrated on universities, which have increased overall participation of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, though not in the most selective institutions.
But, to promote meaningful social mobility we must also improve the life chances of those who have already reached adulthood. The UK today has nearly 5 million people of working age with no qualifications.
We’re doing what we can - including through the all-age National Careers Service - to spread the message that education and training are worthwhile at any point in life. There is a wage return of around 6 per cent just from achieving basic literacy and numeracy. So it is vital that people know about second chances - including those leaving state institutions - a care home, a prison, the Army. Indeed, one of our policies I’m proudest of is a prisons programme in collaboration with a local FE college boosting maths and English skills, based on Army experience.
We are committed to the continued funding of English and maths courses for adults without basic skills. We are now funding adults to get Maths and English GCSEs. These programmes are meat and drink for colleges - they always have been. It’s important that colleges are not only recognised for their role as agents of social mobility, but that you make yourselves heard in the wider debate.
The same goes for the people in our communities who provide personal learning, family learning and neighbourhood learning courses. The value of what you do cannot be adequately conveyed in bald numbers - because they do not measure improved mental health or self-esteem, nor the boost children get from having parents able to help them read in the evenings or discuss their schoolwork.
A better deal for young people
The final challenge also falls within the parameters of social mobility, and it’s about filling a gap in provision for young people not in education or employment. Policy formulation remains at an early stage, but I want to give you sense of what we’re considering.
The issue is this: the Government has a clear vision for 16- to 18-year-olds, where we are raising the participation age and increasing support for English and maths. But for young people over 18, the offer is much less clear. There’s generous educational support for some - despite fees higher education is still substantially subsidised - but, for others, financial support through the benefits system can actually prevent them from learning.
Ideally, we should be keeping this age group as far away from the benefits system as possible, unless there’s a really compelling need. For this group, then, we need a much simpler system, which supports and incentivises people to get the skills they need to secure sustainable employment, whether through HE, FE or an apprenticeship, or through more bespoke interventions to help them acquire the employability skills that too many companies tell me are lacking.
In the meantime, let me conclude on an optimistic note.
I also happened to be in Birmingham last week, attending the Skills Show at the NEC. For the thousands of visitors, it was a terrific event showcasing competitions in 50 different skills, offering people hands-on experience and providing expert careers advice. It showed that preparations for WorldSkills 2013 are well on track - and that we’re providing young people with the skills and motivation to start a business of their own.
And on my way here today, I stopped in at Dudley College to formally open their new vocational and sixth form centres. It was great to see how their plans for a learning quarter in the town centre are developing - and Dudley has just been awarded £2 million through the Enhanced Renewal Grants scheme to build specialist facilities to teach advanced manufacturing and engineering.
So the FE and skills sector is in good hands and in good shape. I’m not blind to areas where we need to raise our game - declining take up of vocational qualifications is a concern, for example. Nevertheless, I’m confident that we’re doing the right things to achieve a bright future for FE - hacking away at bureaucracy, promoting our expertise abroad, treating education as a fundamental strand of the Government’s evolving industrial strategy.
Thank you again for your efforts, and for your support.