Matthew Hancock speaks to the Edge Foundation

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

Matthew Hancock spoke to the Edge Foundation about the importance of vocational education.

Thank you, Lord Baker, for asking me to deliver the Edge lecture.

It is a great honour, and an honour especially to give it this year - the twentieth year since your revolutionary reforms in colleges.

Following hard on the tails of the introduction of the national curriculum across schools.

Your freeing of colleges, giving autonomy to college leaders, as well as introducing city technology colleges, has widely been heralded by education reformers, leading as it did to academies, free schools, and UTCs.

Looking at your conference programme today, it strikes me it’s right up my street.

My role in government is to act as champion, cheerleader and campaigner for technical education. That’s what you do.

To equip our country for future economic success.

And to give all young people the chance to reach their potential. These are your goals too.

And I know many here today share my sense of urgency.

Last week, the OECD released a report on adult skills, comparing adult skill levels in England to 24 other developed countries.

It ranked us nearly bottom for literacy and numeracy for 16- to 24-year-olds. Uniquely among developed nations, our older generation perform better than our youth.

The case for reform could not be more stark.

That reform must start at the youngest age, improve early years care, invigorate primaries, drive up standards in secondaries, and challenge colleges.

This OECD shock directly addresses every part of our education system.

It is a rallying cry for reform. It will shape the debate. No one can now deny that a policy of ever higher results in ever easier exams with ever more qualifications has failed.

So I want to talk to you today about what reform looks like.

About what we’ve done so far, and what we’re changing.

And in particular, the role colleges can play - including as elite institutions, leaders in their communities.

First, though, I want to start with the bigger picture - what should vocational education look like?

Throughout the ages, from ancient times, and long before compulsory schooling, we’ve had vocational education.

Delivered in the workplace, through guilds, and increasingly down the centuries in technical colleges, vocational education has always had a clear goal:

To prepare people for work.

And while the ages roll on, and the landscape of work changes fundamentally, vocational education remains a vital part of any modern economy.

But vocational education has another, deeper function. For high-quality vocational provision helps all to reach their potential.

Some argue that there’s a tension, a divide, between supporting vocational and academic education: that you’re for one, or the other.

This fundamentally misunderstands what matters: stretching, challenging, academic education is vital for driving social mobility, allowing any child to reach their potential and transcend the circumstances of their birth.

But vocational education?

High-quality, demanding vocational education does exactly the same thing.

And whether it’s academic or vocational, it doesn’t happen automatically.

Just as making exams easier then trumpeting success denigrates and undermines academic education…

… so weak and irrelevant vocational quality does the same too.

And we must not fall for the intellectual error that just because something must be available to all, means that it must be achievable by all.

This error: that vocational courses ought to be easy and not stretching because we cater for everyone is patronising, debilitating, and wrong.

And the idea that vocational education can be separated from the vocations that it serves is mistaken.

The “line of sight to work” - as Frank McLoughlin so eloquently put it - is front and centre of the purpose of vocational education.

And just a word on this question of parity of esteem.

Parity of esteem emphatically does not mean parity between teacher and pupil.

Teachers are - should - must - be: imbued in their subject, masters of their craft, and leading edge technicians.

Pupils are just that.

Can you imagine a German meister craftsman claiming a parity of esteem with his apprentices?

Of course not.

That isn’t to say we can’t learn from youngsters. I have children too.

What parity of esteem should mean is that someone should be open to choose, and society should equally value, academic or vocational education.

But no amount of exhortation will get us there. We will only reach that parity if vocational education truly is as high quality, as rigorous, as rewarding as academic.

So, rigour and responsiveness: the 2 driving forces behind my reforms.

What does that mean in practice?

First, and centrally, we are increasing the quality and duration of apprenticeships. These reforms have overwhelming support and are crucial to safeguarding the future of apprenticeships in the 21st century.

We’ve introduced new study programmes - to remove funding incentives to push 16- to 18-year-olds through qualifications they could complete, rather than what was right for them.

And alongside more freedom to teach what matters to students, we will hold all providers more rigorously to account - with accountability properly comparable across all types of institution.

New traineeships, for those not quite ready for work, include English and maths, as well as work experience and what they need to hold down an apprenticeship or job.

We’re expanding work experience. We abolished compulsory time spent in a simulated working environment, and instead are focused on more real work experience in real workplaces.

And we’re reforming qualifications, to ensure they match the needs of employers. apprenticeships, tech levels, and in future adult qualifications will need to demonstrate the value they bring to employers in order to attract public funding.

Everyone will carry on learning maths to 18, either to get a GCSE or an advanced core maths qualification. If they didn’t pass English GCSE, they’ll keep learning that, too.

And throughout all our reforms, only the best providers, those who have achieved a good or outstanding Ofsted grade, get to offer the flagship programmes for example, 14 to 16 enrolments or traineeships.

These changes are essential to creating more rigorous and responsive further education.

But they aren’t, on their own, enough.

I want to set out my vision for colleges, 20 years from when you, my Lord, set them free.

To understand the role colleges play - it’s worth taking a moment to look at their evolution over the last 150 years.

The first colleges were private and small: royal charters, talented amateurs and eminent Victorians - a limited response to a new industrial society.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a great wave of self-improvement and community development, an organic education movement that gave us many of our working men’s clubs, evening schools, technical centres, philanthropic foundations and colleges.

Then, in the 20th century, education was largely nationalised.

After the war, Butler’s technical schools were stillborn.

Colleges were put under local authority control, and did not thrive.

And after being set free in 1992, in the 2 decades since, state funding grew - yet so did state control.

Too many people in my job saw colleges as a tool at their disposal - as functional, limited organisations, that were theirs to command and control of whatever funding body was there at the time.

But this attempt to control from the centre stunted innovation and misdirected purpose.

Instead of looking out to the community, too many colleges looked up to government.

They became delivery arms of the state.

I want to see colleges rediscover that early ethos, that sense of social purpose.

And I know many of you do too - we want to see colleges that are about more than just implementing, delivering, getting by - but are leaders in their communities, that are energetic and entrepreneurial institutions, that galvanise and grow their towns and cities and regions.

“Yes!” I hear you cry. “We’re doing that already!” And some of the best colleges are.

But for too long some colleges have done that despite the system.

Instead I want to see all colleges do that because of the system.

And I want you to do it much, much more.

Instead of delivery arms of the state, I want to see colleges as social enterprises.

Enterprising in what they do, and how they support the people they serve.

And enterprising in who their customers are.

Where we, on behalf of taxpayers, provide the funds, colleges should respond to the needs of learners and employers. And of course we will stringently hold them to account, through published data, on exam results, through Ofsted, by completion and increasingly by wider success measures of progression and employment.

This is true of adults, and of course of children too.

Today’s conference focuses on opportunities for young people from 14 onwards.

We opened up good and outstanding colleges to 14- to 16-year-olds from this September, because it’s essential to open up options and choice and diversity. It means they will get a strong general education, with access to vocational options at the same time.

It’s an idea from Alison Wolf - and as she says, it means more young people are exposed to the needs of local employers.

I’m delighted a number of colleges have taken the opportunity to offer places - and want to encourage more. Opening up colleges in this way will encourage innovative approaches to deliver what needs to be high quality teaching, and I’m enthusiastically supportive of initiatives to do that.

But increasingly, as well as delivering education funded by the taxpayer, colleges are, and should, provide training not funded by the taxpayer. Colleges are education enterprises. The best offer training to companies, local and national.

Think of this.

Of the £40 billion market for adult training in England, less than 10% is funded by the taxpayer.

Yet few colleges receive more than 10% of their revenues from anyone but the taxpayer.

I want this to change, so that colleges truly serve their communities, whoever is footing the bill.

For this responsiveness to local needs, sitting along tough accountability and a drive for rigour, will get the best from colleges, from strong leadership, and help the sector to flourish.

So if colleges should be social enterprises, so too not every college should be the same.

Of course, different colleges will serve different industries, different sectors, and different local need.

More than that, I want to see the emergence of a new breed of elite colleges, which lead the nation - indeed lead the world - in their area.

Next month, I will be at the Skills Show in Birmingham, the showcase for some of the most extraordinary skills in Britain.

The best then represent their country at World Skills.

I love these competitions, bristling as they are with young people striving for perfection in their field.

But it’s not very important whether I love them or not.

Young people love them too. Not just those taking part, but those inspired by the ambition and the brilliance of the contestants.

We need to replicate this ambition in elite colleges. Outstanding to their core, delivering the very best teaching, in core subjects, as well as their speciality.

There are examples of outstanding colleges today. I’ve visited many.

But there is also a long tail that must perform better.

And while our reforms will urge improvement on all, we must celebrate the elite that show the way.

It’s up to you.

Gone are the days when ministers thought it was their right to dictate every detail from the top down - when the tentacles of big departments extended out into every classroom, lab and workshop.

Instead, it is for colleges to take these freedoms.

Raise standards, serve employers.

That we might raise the standard of education for all.

And give everyone the chance to reach their potential.