Thank you David and good morning everyone.
Group Training Associations England’s role in ensuring that GTA’s collective potential is harnessed right across the country is evident from the audience in front of me. That contribution is of enormous value in helping us to deliver the skills outcomes that will be so vital for the prospects of this country and its people.
I know that the work of the GTAs has not been sufficiently recognised in recent years by the Government and its agencies. I know, too, that this neglect cannot be allowed to continue.
Many GTAs have been established for half a century and they consistently deliver successful programmes of work based learning with above average completion rates. They offer, moreover a very special learning experience and have been developing and delivering outstanding training to industry for over forty years. The fact that GTAs are governed by and influenced by employers helps to ensure that you deliver meets real business needs.
I’m particularly glad to see that some of your apprentices have been invited along this morning and are making their own contribution to your conference. Indeed, the truest measure of the success or failure of our work will be found in how well-equipped or otherwise today’s young people will be in future years to face the shifting challenges of life and work.
To be successful in that, we must create a radically new model for workplace training with Apprenticeships at its heart and with partnership between Government, employers and individuals as its motive force.
I’m sure that these young people are already well aware that, these days, none of us can afford to let our knowledge and understanding stand still because the world around us never stands still. They have grown up in an age that is driven by technology to an unprecedented degree. For them, it’s not just the ubiquity of mobile phones that appears normal, but also the fact that the latest model becomes obsolete almost as soon as they’re taken out of the box.
But the need to come to terms with change doesn’t just apply to the young. As the years pass and we grow older, the world somehow seems to change more quickly than it used to. So we must carry on learning new things in order to adapt to it. That’s not always easy.
For those of us who have reached, let us say, a very early middle age, the pace of change, like one of the new Boris bikes in London, can seem giddying, especially when we realise that it’s something we can’t stop or even slow down.
For many it’s hard sometimes not to feel, like Dicken’s Mr Dombey, that “the world has gone”. Tradesmen are not the same as they used to be, apprentices are not the same, business is not the same, business commodities are not the same”.
There are, however, compensations. If experience has perhaps taught many of us not only that change is not always for the better, then it has probably also shown, as Euripides wrote, that “there is in the worst of fortune the best of chances for a happy change”.
That’s a thought to which anyone here who’s worried about the forthcoming Spending Review, about which I’ll have more to say later, might do especially well to hang on.
But we can also take comfort from the fact that not all insights are modern, and that there remain truths which are immutable.
Take, for example, the earliest and probably most-imitated of all great public speeches, the funeral oration, given by Euripides’ contemporary and countryman, Pericles. In it, he said that the best memorial is “graven not on stone but in the hearts of men”.
If that remains as true today as it was two and a half thousand years ago, and I’ve no doubt it does, then young people like those here today and the changes that learning is making to them now, and will continue to make in the future, are the most important monument to the work that many of the rest of us here this morning do.
Of course, I fully accept that it’s important to have figures in a ledger to show we spend the public’s money with which we are entrusted wisely and that we do good for the many and not just the few.
Indeed, that’s something on which my friends at the Treasury tend to insist. And they have little alternative as they deal with the consequences of a decade in which the Government spent money it did not have with as much regard for financial prudence as a boatload of drunken sailors.
The struggle to turn that situation around goes right across Government, and the contribution that the skills system must make its contribution. That is clear from my Department’s Strategy for Sustainable Growth, in which we have set out, among other things, the role that skills must play in creating the conditions needed to reduce the deficit and stimulate growth.
And that’s one reason why we have promised to re-shape the Apprenticeships programme to ensure that it provides more high-quality training opportunities. We have already begun to deliver on that promise by redeploying £150 million to provide an extra 50,000 places.
We are also taking an overdue look at how the costs of Apprenticeships and other forms of workplace learning are divided between Government, employers and individuals.
Hard times always focus people’s attention on the balance-sheet. But at the same time, if numbers were the only reliable indicator of worth, John Nash, in whose astonishing building we find ourselves this morning, would be in the debit rather than the credit column. He would have gone down in history as an apprentice who failed to complete his training rather than as an architect who, by marrying opulence with good taste, changed the face of Britain.
No. Real success for us must lie in the difference that the new knowledge and skills that learners acquire will make to their lives and to Britain as a whole. And not just at work but at home, too.
It will lie in the contribution, both economic and social, that learning emboldens them to make in their local communities and in the part they play, individually and collectively, in creating a bigger, more open and more humane society.
It will lie, perhaps most significantly of all, in the tradition of taking pride in knowledge and skills that they will in turn pass on to the next generation.
And whatever the challenges we have to cope with, however different the skills landscape may look on the far side of the Spending Review, the objectives towards which we work and our determination to reach them must remain.
The most important objective of all is to make Apprenticeships the primary, though I must stress not the only, means for people to gain skills in the workplace. GTAs have demonstrated over the decades their ability to work with employers to provide different forms of skills training as part of a wide programme of workforce development.
But the primacy of Apprenticeships does not necessarily mean that they can be allowed just to continue as they are. They can, and should, be improved.
Change is coming to how we educate adults, whether it’s in the classroom, in the community or at work. Some of that change we choose and it will be change for the better. Some is forced upon us by circumstances and we’ll have to make the best of it that we can.
But this is an area that has never stood still.
It’s certainly true that apprentices are not the same as they were even a few years ago, never mind in the Victorian era which many people still see as the golden age of apprenticeship.
If memory serves me right, the conditions in which apprentices worked for much of the nineteenth century were determined by the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802. And the young learners who are with us this morning might like to reflect on some of the more humanitarian changes that this put in place.
For example, it required apprentices to be given an hour’s religious instruction every Sunday and to attend church at least once a month. In my view, that’s a rule whose time might well come again. But that’s a fanciful thought, not a Government policy.
So, too, could that of the even older, Elizabethan statute under which any apprentice guilty of “default” - which would be subject to whatever punishment the local mayor or justice of the peace thought appropriate.
Apprenticeships have certainly changed over the many centuries during which this form of training has existed. And they will continue to adapt to the modern world’s changing training needs.
Yet as with so much else, their essence has not changed. Above all, they remain perhaps the most effective way of passing on complex practical skills that has ever existed.
And that’s why, even when money is short, the Government is committed to increasing the supply of Apprenticeships, and improving the quality of the training offered, to make them better suited to the needs of employers and learners alike.
Indeed, we believe that the current Apprenticeships programme could be improved significantly in three main areas.
First, many of you know from your own experience that British employers currently face a workforce with insufficient skills at intermediate technician and associate professional level, which are critical to many industries on which our future growth potential will depend and to our international competitiveness.
I know that’s something on which you’re due to hear more from KPMG later on today.
For the Government’s part, we want to create a clearer ladder of progression in the Apprenticeships Programme. There should be greater emphasis on progression to Level 3 and beyond.
And this is why we are committed to expanding, in particular, the number of Apprenticeships available at more advanced skills levels. The Apprenticeship programme, newly refocused to prioritise progression to Level 3 and higher will help deliver the technician- level skills on which the jobs and industries of the coming decades will depend.
Second, we wish to establish more firmly what the appropriate contribution for employers to make towards Apprenticeships should be. You can help in that because Group Training Associations are already a concrete example of how public -private learning partnerships can work successfully.
The wealth of evidence on the return to both employers and individuals from investing in skills provides a compelling argument in this respect.
Third, we want to make it easier for businesses of all sorts to take on apprentices and gain access to the benefits they bring. It is important that employers take up these opportunities and offer Apprenticeship places to secure a new generation of highly skilled employees and we will be encouraging them to do so. Group training models have an important role to play in this.
For example, small businesses are the cornerstone of our economy and high quality training opportunities like Apprenticeships are key to supporting their growth and success. And group training models mean that we can reach more small and medium sized employers.
In the past, many small businesses have been discouraged by the administration and the costs and risks of employing Apprentices. Group Training Associations help spread these costs and risks and create new jobs and training opportunities.
This approach means smaller businesses, who may not have felt able to offer Apprenticeships before, can get on board. Group Training Associations help employers and apprentices alike, providing greater security for the Apprentice and flexibility for the employer.
For further education, like everything else, the seasons are changing. But to make the most of, in Keats’ words, this time ‘of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ we must both reap the harvest provided by the hard working, dedicated staff within the sector, and prepare the ground for a new beginning.
Securing a bountiful future will involve making difficult choices. 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 is why I’m pleased to tell you that we’re bringing in-house the expertise of UKSkills, the charity responsible for championing skills and recognising home-grown talent through awards and competitions. UKSkills’ activities and staff will be transferred to the Skills Funding Agency who will lead a coherent annual programme of competitions and awards to promote skills and apprenticeships, in partnership with the devolved administrations. A highlight will be the WorldSkills 2011 international competition, which is being hosted by the UK in London in October 2011 and will see over 50 counties participate in over 30 skills competitions. My thanks go to UK Skills for their work to date.
As for the future, I am determined to ensure our decisions are the result of proper consultation.
That is why one of our first acts in Government was to publish two consultations on the future direction of skills policy and the simplification of skills funding. If you have not done so already, there is still time for you to contribute your views and your experiences.
We will publish the results of this work after the Spending Review and set out at that stage the detail of how we intend to change and reorganise our learning and skills priorities.
However, I want to go as far as I can - within these constraints - now, which is why I also want to announce that I am asking the SFA today to review urgently what additional financial support they can find to support the invaluable work of GTAs. I want them to find ways to help you reinvigorate your network. Furthermore, I have asked, when we met this morning, for GTA England to identify more ways in which Government can support further the work of GTAs. We will do all we can.
Today, our country needs change and progress in equal measure. I know that you will support me in my mission to ensure that it gets both.