Oral statement to Parliament

City and Islington College

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

Thank you and good morning everyone. Arthur Hugh Clough wrote that: “if hopes were dupes, fears may be liars”. And it seems to me that the…

Thank you and good morning everyone.

Arthur Hugh Clough wrote that: “if hopes were dupes, fears may be liars”. And it seems to me that the words of this unjustly neglected poet are a particularly apt place to begin my remarks on what has been an unjustly neglected sector.

I know that many of the hopes that the last government raised for further education ultimately proved illusory.

And perhaps the most important thing I want to say today is that the fears which you may have for the future will prove equally misplaced.

But before I try to justify that bold statement, I must first thank you all, and especially Frank and his staff, for accommodating my request for an early start this morning.

For being here for me.

I have to go to Parliament shortly for a debate on the importance of skills in building and maintaining a strong economy and, of course, that’s closely linked to what I have to say now…

Even before Lord Leitch published his compelling analysis of the problem, it’s been no secret to most of us that skills are economically vital. And that doesn’t apply just to the manufacturing and industrial sectors, but right across our economy, to the service and retail sectors, and the public sector too.

Employers can’t stay in business without people with the right skills for the job. While people can’t hope for a good job without the skills employers are looking for. Without the right skills, inward investment will dwindle because we can’t compete for jobs on the grounds of cost with countries where low wages are the rule. And of course we wouldn’t want to. We are thankfully beyond dark, satanic mills.

But we can still compete effectively in ways which would have been unfamiliar to Mr Gradgrind. Through the business environment that the government creates. And, crucially, through the skills of our workers; skills which are still vital in the high-tech world in which we live than when William Morris majestically celebrated the joy of craft.

Few people, and very few politicians, would disagree with any of that. Indeed, I know that you’ve heard members of the previous government say similar things, albeit with less style.

But the similarity of aims should not obscure absolute difference of view about mean. You see my own analysis differs fundamentally from theirs, and the good news for you and particularly for me it that both the Prime Minister and Vince Cable agree with me, not my predecessors.

I believe, like Ruskin, that “industry without art is brutality”.

Too often in the recent past, the strength of the economic case for skills has been portrayed as the only case for skills, creating an implicit and in my opinion wrongheaded divide between learning that is useful and learning that is useless. We emphasise the economic and overlook the social and cultural benefits of learning at our peril.

The previous government’s concentration on the utilitarian aspects of learning excluded too much valuable activity and too many people. I see learning as a single whole, not a series of separate silos. Learning a skill to do a job should lead into learning for pleasure or self-fulfilment, and vice versa. But more the acquisition of practical skills is virtuous for its own sake as it instils purposeful pride. We enjoy what we learn to do well.

Likewise, the line between further and higher education should be a permeable membrane, not an iron curtain.

As soon as people start to treat the various styles and levels of learning as discrete entities, they also begin to erect the sorts of arbitrary barriers that stop learners moving from one to another, barriers that are the antithesis of the ideal of lifelong learning. And, of course, the people worst affected by these barriers are the most disadvantaged in our society, those furthest from learning and with fewest chances for progression.

These are all reasons why, in my view, no learning should be treated as if it were without point and every new element added to our collective stock of knowledge and skill should be applauded. Everything any of us learns adds a new brick to the edifice of civilised life. Those with the will and commitment to learn, however they do it and whatever they choose to study, should be admired and encouraged. None should be disparaged as one of Browning’s “picker-up of learning’s crumbs”.

The services this college offers to its community - services the excellence of which has repeatedly been recognised - are a case in point.

I recently took a look at your summer courses and was pleased to see intensive ceramic-throwing in there alongside more obviously vocational options like beginners’ computing and level 3 perming effects.

I think the author of The Stones of Venice would have approved.

But it’s the economic rather than the social or cultural case for skills that has been used by some not just to downgrade learning for its own sake, but as an excuse for the centralised command and control arrangements that have been foisted on adult educators over the past decade and more.

Now we must finally acknowledge that this approach, even in the terms of its own narrow criteria, has failed.

As the UK Commission of Employment and Skills reported in the Ambition 2020 report published last year, on recent trends, we are likely to slip from 18th to 21st in OECD rankings for intermediate level skills by 2020.

On recent performance ‘we will not be in the top eight countries of the world at any skill level’ in ten years time.

The highly centralised and bureaucratic system that developed over the course of the last Government meant that funds that could have been used on teaching and training, to dirve up skill levels, have, instead been devoted to formulating detailed plans and complying with targets.

Bean counting, hoop jumping, form filling - these were the skills my predecessors most admired.

Instead of enabling colleges and other providers to respond to needs of businesses and learners in their areas, Ministers, isolated in their Whitehall Offices, thought that they had a better idea of what these needs were.

Excessive bureaucracy sapped precious energy from our education system.

And, even worse, it led to systemic failure in the form of a F.E. capital crisis from which the sector is still reeling.

The LSC encouraged bids that would have cost 10 times more than the available funds.

144 capital projects were frozen.

79 of these projects had already received agreement in principle, and many colleges incurred considerable costs .as the result of what the Foster Review into the crisis described as ‘mismanagement’.

The top-heavy target driven bureaucratic system failed, as it was bound to. As Andrew Foster concluded, the LSC was too slow to respond: ‘there were straws in the wind, early storm warnings, but the problem was not crystallised fast enough.

There has to be a better way. An increasingly dynamic economy necessitates a dynamic skills system. If we are to build a highly skilled, high tech economy Colleges and independent providers need to be able to respond quickly to the needs of learners and employers.

That is why this government must and will offer further education a new beginning. - From satanic mills to bows of burning gold in one speech.

Before being appointed as Minister I was fortunate enough to have enjoyed a long Apprenticeship as Shadow Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further Education and Skills. Over the past five years I have held countless meetings with College Principles, their representative bodies and others from the sector.

I visited innumerable colleges across the country.

Everything I said in Opposition, and everything I say now in Government has been informed by the relationship I have built with FE.

I’ve listened to what you have had to say.

Which is why we came into government with the promise to set colleges free.

Now is the time to start delivering on this promise.

That’s why I’ve to come here, to a college, to announce publicly that we’re starting today. This is not the end of a process, but only the beginning.

Vince Cable has written this morning to the Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency setting out our ambitions for the Agency’s in 2010-11.

In parallel, I have also written today to colleges and other training organisations. My letter announces a number of ways in which the burdens on them will be lightened:

First, I am removing the requirement to complete Summary Statements of Activity, with a resulting reduction in performance monitoring of employer responsiveness.

Second, the Government has already announced the removal of Ofsted inspections for schools with outstanding performance - I will work with Ministerial Colleagues to introduce the same way approach to the FE sector removing inspections for Colleges with outstanding performance’.

Third, I will also remove the regulatory requirement for college Principals to undertake the Principals’ Qualifying Programme. That is not because I do not want appropriately qualified principals, but because I know that there are a range of development opportunities and qualifications which can enhance principals’ capabilities to run colleges.

Individuals and their institutions should be free to decide what package of development is appropriate to suit individual circumstances.

We will, of course, work with the Learning and Skills Improvement Service to ensure that there are high quality development opportunities available to prepare for and carry out leadership roles in the sector. This will allow governors to reassure themselves about the skills and capabilities of those seeking to take up leadership positions or to develop further in those roles.

And fourthly and most importantly, I will enable all colleges except those which are performing poorly to move money between adult learner and employer budgets, because you know best how to help you learners’ fulfil their potential and meet employer needs.

I hope that these are all changes which you welcome. But they are not an end in themselves. They are only a beginning, a first indication of this government’s determination to deliver on the promises it has made to providers and learners alike. To draw a line under the mistakes of the past and deliver a better future.

With this Government FE is no longer the poor relation. Cinderella is going to the ball.

With freedom comes a fresh challenge, as the costs of compliance is reduced I will be looking for colleges to find efficiencies. This may be, for example though the use of shared services and new approach to procurement. And colleges freed from constraints will also find new, better and more efficient ways of responding to local needs.

It won’t have escaped you that there are other things that the government has promised, too. And that chief among them is to tackle the public sector deficit and secure our economic recovery. You may therefore suspect that, as I have come here today with some goodies for colleges in one hand, I’ve probably got a big stick in the other.

So now you’ve at last got a Minister who is going to treat the FE sector as grown ups lets talk frankly. Members of the government from the Prime Minister down have striven to be completely frank with people about the scale of the savings that will need to be made to bring the public finances back under control and the pain that will inevitably result.

I certainly can’t pretend that further education will be excluded from those challenges. But I can give you some indications about how it will be managed.

So for the rest of my time this morning, I want to turn my attention to an area where we announced that there would be changes: the £1 billion Train to Gain programme. I know that there has been a lot of comments about this in the sector and among employers and it’s important that I should make our intentions clear.

George Osborne’s budget announcement a couple of weeks ago saw £200 million from the Train to Gain budget, refocused where we know it is needed most . £50 million of that money is being recycled into new capital grants for colleges, while the remaining £150 million will pay for 50,000 extra apprenticeship places this year.

The main point I want to make is that the money saved was not taken from further education and skills. A quarter of it is going to help alleviate a serious problem for many colleges; a left over from the capital crisis I spoke of earlier, while the rest will continue to support training in the workplace.

In that context, those of you who have followed the debate around further education policy over the last few years will know how much store this government sets on apprenticeships. There are many good reasons for that. First and foremost, the apprenticeships model is not only work-based, but work-focused. It passes on the practical skills needed to do a particular job in a way that is widely appreciated and understood.

The evidence also shows that apprenticeships add more to a person’s earning-power than any other form of practical training. Someone may begin an apprenticeship unable to do anything that might fit them for a skilled job. But they emerge as - and I’m not afraid of the word - a craftsman. I am as proud of medieval stonemasons, who build so many of our cathedrals - and an apprenticeship can still rightly involve learning how to use a mallet and chisel - as I am of the software designers, film technicians, aeronautical engineers that emerge from today’s apprenticeships.

Demand for apprenticeship places is growing and one of our priorities is to encourage more employers to participate. Apprenticeships are both a route to key competences for employees and a vital way to help employers build highly skilled, efficient businesses.

We must also seek new ways of guiding people from lower-level engagement into apprenticeships, and from apprenticeships into higher education or other forms of further study.

Academic study should not, and both David Willetts and I are determined it won’t be, seen as the only thing that carries value. Practical skills are often undervalued, but that’s usually by people who don’t and couldn’t ever have them.

As a youngster growing up in south east London, I realised that I was only clever enough to be an academic. I was not clever enough to use my hands to make and do things. And the older I get, the more I revere the practical skills of my forbears, their craftsmanship and the pride they were able to take in it.

But as effective as apprenticeships are, they are not the be-all and end-all of workplace training. That is why we have never proposed, as some people mischievously claim, simply to end funding for other work based training and put all of the money saved into apprenticeships instead. And let me say once and for all that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with helping people to train whilst in work.

But there’s everything wrong with waste at any time and above all at times like these. Train to Gain was always too blunt an instrument to be efficient, craft the skills we need and its impact was never proportionate to the enormous amounts of money it cost.

Indeed, the National Audit Office found that that the scheme did not provide good value for money.

Apprenticeships have value, for people and for employers. People understand what they are and the benefits they bring. But for some, that won’t always be right. And we’re determined that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the last government by driving towards one arbitrary goal without actually considering what else employees and employers need.

So one of the big questions I’m going to be seeking to answer over the next few months is what are the right things for the government to do to support employers and people for whom apprenticeships aren’t the right answer, as we create a comprehensive, efficient and effective workplace training offer.

One of the key issues is eliminating deadweight - where taxpayers’ money is simply substituted for money that employers would spend regardless. Because every pound that my Department spends to zero effect is a pound that won’t be spent on other public services or in helping to bring down the deficit, or simply left in the pockets of the people who worked hard to earn.

There are clearly also questions around the specific needs of particular economic sectors, and also whether special provision should be made for small and medium-sized enterprises who often find it more difficult than larger organisations to absorb the time and cost pressures that staff training can involve.

Finally, there is the problem of bureaucracy on which I have already touched. Whatever new arrangements to support workplace training are established - including the provisions of information, advice and guidance to employers and learners - must avoid the pitfalls of excessive paperwork that have put so many people off training and frustrated employers.

Those are some of the key issues that we will need to address soon. Others will occur to those of you with direct experience of training in the workplace. And that’s another important point.

I am determined not to sit in Whitehall and remotely form a picture of how things are in colleges or workplaces. As I have done during our time in opposition I will consult, listen, learn and act.

I want to take time to talk to people like you about how things are, and what we should do to make them better.

Lets agree on the clear that action is needed, to build on what is working in the further education and skills sector and set right what is not.

Change is coming and, as Dr Johnson so rightly said in the preface to his dictionary, “change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better”.

It behoves all of us here, whatever the inconvenience and however difficult the transition, that the changes that are coming lead to a better deal for the learners whose hopes, in our various ways, we hold in our hands.

I began my speech by quoting a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough. The last line of that poem is quite well known - “But westward, look, the land is bright”. This was once famously quoted by the last leader of a British coalition government before David Cameron. Even at one of the darkest moments of the war, Churchill was inviting Britain to look to the future with confidence. And even amid our current troubles, I invite you to do the same today. Because I firmly believe that the future for colleges is bright. I am determined to work unceasingly to make it so.

Today, we take the first step towards a better, freer, more empowered further education system.

Today we start to unchain the immense human capital in FE.

Today, with the changes I have announced, we have made a new beginning. But tomorrow we must strive together to bring the process of rebuilding to fruition. Let us make sure that looking back we will be able to say that rebuilding started here, today, with us.

And I hope that we will feel able to say, that Cinderella lived happily ever after.

Thank you.