Thank you and good morning everyone.
Ever since I’ve been in politics, I’ve spoken out for adult learning. In that time, I’ve seen plenty of strategies and plenty of lip-service paid to it. But what I’ve never seen is a system established in this country that delivers all the economic and social benefits that further education promises.
The net result is that, today, the need to establish a system that makes possible a truly lifelong approach to learning, nurturing sustainable economic growth and social renewal, is perhaps more urgent than it has ever been before.
I challenge anyone to walk around some of the estates of south-east London, where I grew up, and say that our society isn’t broken.
Our common heritage is not unfairness and intolerance, nor the brutality that these evils breed. Neither is it passive acceptance of things not being right.
The qualities that made the people of this country admired the world over - qualities like a willingness to stand up for what is right and a sense of fair play - have not become extinct. And yet parts of our society are indeed brutal and indeed intolerant.
All too often, those who make the effort to improve their own, their families’ and their communities’ lives go unnoticed and unrewarded.
Too many people feel they have lost power over their own lives.
Too many neighbourhoods are communities in name only because there is no incentive for solidarity and joint action.
I don’t pretend that democratising learning can cure all these ills. As David Cameron said just last Monday, we can only start to put things right by means of a wholesale devolution of power from central government to local communities.
But unless we embrace the principle of lifelong learning, unless we become once again a people that cherishes knowledge and takes pride in skill, then we cannot begin the process of mending Britain.
That is because education is the greatest civilising force that has ever existed or ever will.
Knowledge really is power. It says to people, raise your heads and look to the future because your future is yours to build. And it says that what you become is in your hands.
So I can’t help but feel honoured that it falls to me to, in Churchill’s words, “to lift again the tattered flag I found lying on a stricken field” and attempt to raise lifelong learning to the position that it deserves to occupy in our national life.
For, as another great Conservative Benjamin Disraeli said ‘Upon the education of the people… the future of this country depends.’
The consultation documents that we are launching today seek to place learning at the heart of our society.
But if the full force for good that a culture of lifelong learning could exert on our society was not released when money seemed plentiful, how are we to release it now?
Since the election, I’ve noticed two contrasting attitudes to the future of further education and indeed the future of public services in general.
On one side are those who merely wring their hands and wait for the axe to fall.
But other people, and I count myself among them, see in the need to make savings not impending disaster, but a once in a generation opportunity for really radical reform.
The important thing is not that further education should become ever richer, but that it should become ever better. Spending more isn’t essential if you are prepared to spend more wisely.
Those of us who think in this way see the waste, the over-regulation and the failure, all too often, to give institutions like this one what they need to really deliver for the people who depend on them.
And we see in the impending cuts a driving force inexorable enough to overcome the inertia that stands in the way of real change or a storm of sufficient strength to finally sweep away, to borrow Shakespeare’s great formula, “the dust of creeds outworn”.
I believe that we can deliver more and save money. But we will only achieve cost effectiveness by challenging the orthodox assumptions about what skills are for, how they are funded and what role Government should play.
This opportunity to look critically at how closely what we are doing matches what individual learners and their employers need us to be doing must be grasped. And it should prompt in those of us who care deeply about adult learning a sense of excitement, not a sense of trepidation.
It is in that spirit that our consultation proposals have been prepared. The system we want to build must harness both the economic and the social potential of lifelong learning. And I see the Comprehensive Spending Review not as a threat, but as an opportunity to do precisely that.
The direction we want to take is clear. The issue is how best to get there. And that is where we need to hear your thoughts on how things could be made to work better, to draw on your knowledge of how things work in real life, and to learn more about the real obstacles you have to overcome on a daily basis.
You can read the detail of our proposals for yourselves. But, in view of what I’ve said so far, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they focus on two main themes.
The first and most important is to secure a real transfer of power - and also of responsibility - from the centre to individuals and their employers.
That needs to start with ensuring that they get accurate and impartial information about the learning available and of what benefit it is likely to be to them. In adult learning, the Government’s responsibility should be to facilitate informed choice.
Of course, there can be no free choice without diversity. So we must do whatever is possible in the present funding environment to see that demand is met. For example, Apprenticeships are enormously popular with learners and employers alike.
That is one reason why we have already acted to expand the number of Apprenticeships available by reallocating money that was previously being wasted through Train to Gain. And it explains why we must now look for innovative ways to incentivise employers to support training in the workplace. There is also growing demand for adult and community learning. This is not only valuable in its own right, but also as an activity that can stimulate people to learn for vocational reasons as well as for enjoyment.
We therefore propose to help strengthen the relationships between colleges, local authorities, charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises to support the delivery of adult education and community learning.
The need to make the system less forbidding for customers obviously doesn’t end there. For example, there remains a need for much greater transparency around vocational qualifications and their credibility or otherwise with employers. What greater disincentive to continued learning is there than working hard for a qualification only to discover that it delivers absolutely nothing in terms of career progression?
So we need to do more to ensure that no learning represents a dead-end. That’s particularly true of those who are currently out of work, dependent on benefits or otherwise disadvantaged. Our aim is to make it easier for them to get the training they need to enter and progress in work and learning.
And new pathways need to be developed between formal and informal learning and, indeed, between the different levels and modes of formal learning. To take just one example, there is still a lack of clear routes between Level 3 Apprenticeships and study opportunities at higher education level.
The second theme of the consultations follows from the first.
If we want to ensure proper choice for learners and employers between high-quality options while achieving best value for money, we must free colleges and training organisations from unnecessary bureaucracy and make them more accountable to their customers.
We made a good start on that with the relaxation of the burdens of inspection and reporting, together with the new freedom for most colleges to move money between adult learner and employer responsive budgets that I announced last month.
Earlier this month, I received the recommendations of Chris Banks’ review of co-funding. The main aim of the review was to establish how to overcome the barriers to securing investment from employers and individuals alongside government while simplifying the further education and skills system.
This is clearly an extremely important issue for everyone involved in adult learning and so we are taking advantage of this consultation also to invite views on how to implement this approach.
This is clearly an extremely important issue for everyone involved in adult learning and so we are taking advantage of this consultation also to invite views on the fees review’s recommendations.
But we must go further, faster. That is why we are seeking your views on what further simplifications would make it easier for you to deliver what your customers need.
I hope that everyone here and in the wider further education community will share with me their thoughts and ideas on these and other questions. I want today to be remembered the day when we take the first steps towards releasing the genie of adult learning, in all its power, from the lamp of excessive state control. And in years to come, I hope that people will look back on this day as one of the milestones in the further education movement.
If and when they do, I hope they’ll be able to say that, though times were tough and money short, our shared belief in and commitment to adult learning never wavered. Indeed, that where others saw cause only for woe, we instead found opportunity and grasped it.
Today, by acknowledging the value of learning we can begin the task of re-evaluating our priorities, rediscovering craft, redefining community learning, rejuvenating apprenticeships, rebalancing the economy and building a big society.