Good morning everyone.
I am going to speak today about the future of FE and I wanted the first people with whom I shared my thoughts to be some of those who know the sector best, care about it most and, critically, who will play a key role in delivering a new future for FE that is characterised by innovation, vocational excellence and a renewed sense of enthusiasm for and pride in skills.
Many of you say that I am something of a tribune for our FE sector, in public, in Parliament and within Government. My commitment isn’t based on sentiment, although we should never be apologetic about the beauty of craft and the elegance of learning. The case for practical learning is far from merely utilitarian. Nevertheless, a hard-headed analysis proves how fundamental high-quality adult learning and skills are to achieving many of the key objectives of the coalition’s programme for government.
Take, for example, our highest priority, the task of restoring economic growth.
Higher skills bring higher productivity. But they also allow businesses to become more efficient and more innovative.
In the rebalanced global economy, productivity, efficiency and innovation will be key to this country’s continued ability to be competitive. That applies not just to international markets, but in our domestic economy, too.
New economic powers like India, China and Brazil are looking to increase their exports, and they will cater to our home market’s demands if British producers don’t because they can’t. Of course, the growing strength of countries like these isn’t an accident. It is based on years of focused investment, including in education and skills.
People often speak of our economy in isolation, as if it were separate from the rest of our national life. Of course it isn’t. Growth coupled with a skilled workforce creates jobs, which in turn spread prosperity and spending-power. But even in an environment in which new jobs are being created - which they currently are, as a matter of fact - lack of the right skills still leaves people excluded.
There are currently nearly a million young people not in education, employment or training. A further 80,000 people are locked up in our gaols. Targeted skills provision is at the heart of the Government’s strategies for getting people out of inactivity or out of the pernicious cycle of offending and reoffending and offering them productive lives.
It follows from everything I’ve said so far that skills are also a powerful force in achieving progressive social aims. High skills have always been an enabler of social mobility. But even more importantly, we know that gaining and using skills gives individuals and their families a stronger sense of purpose and pride in their own achievements. It’s also clear that learning, including perhaps in its more informal settings, strengthens communities by helping to bring people together and encouraging active citizenship.
The public health benefits of learning and its positive effects on reducing anti-social behaviour are well documented. The stronger our adult learning and skills system, the healthier and happier as a nation we are likely to become because achievement feeds contentment which in turn nourishes the common good.
This vision of a stronger society based on an appreciation of what learning and skills can do poses great challenges. The Government set out its approach to meeting them last November in Skills for Sustainable Growth. But the skills revolution we seek and the benefits we look to it to bring cannot be led from above. It needs the active involvement of you and your learners as well.
Let’s start with individual learners.
I remember early last year seeing a young unemployed woman being interviewed on the BBC. She had been directed to one course after another and passed them all. But they had led to nowhere; certainly no closer to a job, because they were the wrong courses.
How disappointing to have left her disenchanted about the value of learning and disillusioned about how much control she had over her destiny.
Learners deserve to grasp the relationship between the skills they acquire and the outcomes they can gain in terms of work, social skills and social progress. So, learning needs not only to be “accessible”- in the sense of learners being able to participate in it; but “explicable” - in terms of individuals understanding the different impacts that different types of learning can have on their lives.
Empowerment does not simply amount to giving people the right to choose. They must also be equipped with the information they need to make an informed choice. That is why, among other things, we are radically reforming and restructuring careers guidance services, which is something about which we will say more tomorrow.
We must empower people to gauge the likely impact of learning for them before they begin it and to make informed choices on that basis. That means putting aside the last Government’s pre-occupation with inputs - on measuring things like how many people train - and instead concentrating on the outcomes of training for those trained.
If we want it to be valued, learning must be seen to deliver on its promises.
And if it does, we can renew shared public appreciation of the value of skills.
There are challenges, too, for employers.
There is no point continuing, as we have all done for years, listening passively to employers’ complaints when the skills system fails to meet their needs. We must challenge them by giving them the power to do something about it.
But first, they must understand the importance of skills to their businesses, and then what their businesses’ specific skills needs are. Over and above this, more businesses must do what many do now; develop a willingness to engage more closely with their staff - Unionlearn is one good vehicle for that - and businesses and skills providers must be closer than ever.
The model for this sort of close, three-way partnership is the Apprenticeships programme. That’s an important reason for the Government’s unprecedented commitment to it. We will create more apprenticeships in our nation than we’ve ever had in our history.
The Government is continuing to make a substantial investment in adult FE and skills, but we also need to rebalance investment, with the costs of training being shared between employers, individuals and the state. We need employers to “own” training programmes, to put their stamp on the skills brand, curriculum and content.
We are already beginning to see more employer sponsorship of workshops, academies and zoning of teaching blocks - this is an excellent start but we must do more.
The final set of challenges will fall to you, the FE sector. You are the experts on how to train people. But you, too, must become more open to the views of learners and employers about how you could do that differently - better.
You must think about the special strengths that each of your institutions has, and how to build on them, providing specialist, vocationally-focused offers that are unique and distinctive.
Distinctive in focusing on the training needs of individual sectors and being highly visible to your employer communities. Distinctive in making your offer different from that of other providers, so that there is diversity and choice for employers and learners.
Britain’s 21st century demands a rainbow of provision, not monotone grey uniformity. We demand scope for individuality, not collectivisation. A limited palette won’t allow us to paint the sharply focused, specialised employer-led provision that we need. Nor is uniformity likely to foster the type of relationship that must exist between employers and employees in individual sectors and their professional counterparts within and across colleges and providers. Learners, employers, lecturers and trainers are united by their shared interest in specific areas of vocational skills and this must be recognised in the way learning is organised and delivered, and how colleges and training organisations promote themselves to local communities.
Our reform agenda also means we need to look again at the approach to addressing poor delivery. We need to take decisive action so that when minimum levels of performance go unmet, other providers, new and existing, can replace inadequate provision.
So, for example, where a college is wholly failing, there has been a tendency in the sector to assume that merging it with another college is invariably the best option. We need to be more creative, including looking at potential new providers and new delivery models, including opening up opportunities for high-quality deliverers from the independent sector. An ever-smaller number of ever-larger and more similar institutions is not going to meet that demand in FE any more than it is in schools or higher education. I am not saying that mergers should never happen, but there needs to be a wide variety of approaches if we are to achieve a revitalised and dynamic system.
We want to work with you to refine our approach so that change is catalysed, not by failure, but by innovation.
We are giving the sector more freedom and flexibility to deliver the learning and skills their local communities want, and in return I expect you to transform the look and content of your provision.
I want you to step up, to take advantage of the freedoms, and think laterally and creatively about the offer you provide. For me responsiveness is the baseline: innovation is our aim.
My vision is of a revitalised, reborn FE sector which is more responsive to the changing needs of a dynamic economy. It will involve greater choice and a market opened up to a range of high quality and more diverse set of providers. It will encompass a wide ranging and evolving set of colleges and training organisations who can respond quickly to meet specific, specialist and/or localised demand as needs alter.
Meeting the challenges
In the past year, much has been done to create the conditions in which these challenges can be met.
We have freed you from a whole raft of pointless rules and regulations and are removing more.
Government off your back and on your side.
We have announced funding which will deliver at least 250,000 more Apprenticeships by the end of this Parliament than the previous Government planned.
We have protected funding for Informal Adult and Community Learning, whilst focusing on those who most need it.
We are developing co-funding and loans for adult learners to achieve the rebalancing of public and employer or individual investment.
At the same time, we have protected funding to help our lowest-skilled people, prioritising young adults who don’t have qualifications when they leave school and improving the quality of training for those without literacy and numeracy.
We are working towards creating an independent, highly professional, impartial careers service that will ensure that people have the right information at the right time to make the right choices.
And we are working with employers and expert bodies to encourage the development of new industry-led professional standards schemes and ensure the suite of qualifications is valued and of high quality.
But I believe there is more to do and scope for new thinking.
Though further education is time-honoured - for craft is rooted in our history - Apprenticeships pre-date degrees. As C S Lewis observed, “you are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream”.
And this is not a Government like the last one, satisfied because it identified problems, concocted plans, restricted, regulated and repeatedly rebadged. Our strategy, Skills for Sustainable Growth is the start of a journey. We must, we will, maintain and increase the momentum we have created.
So I want to hear your views on how we might develop our strategies further, demonstrating more clearly than ever the FE and skills system’s contribution to economic growth and social renewal, to individual opportunity and collective wellbeing.
So let me share with you just some of the areas where there still remains significant work to do.
There is much more to do on Apprenticeships, in particular in terms of making the system more straightforward, developing better access arrangements into an Apprenticeship for people with low skills, and also doing more to develop higher Apprenticeships at the higher end of the skills scale.
There is important work to do in developing learner support arrangements, particularly introducing Lifelong Learning Accounts and tuition fee loans for adult learners. This is something on which we will be consulting very shortly.
We have promised to review informal adult and community learning in order to ensure that we get maximum value from what I regard as the jewel in the learning crown going ahead. Here, too, a consultation exercise is pending.
As most of you know, we have been discussing with the sector further ways in which to make your relationship with the Government and our agencies less onerous. They include introducing a single budget for colleges and streamlining monitoring and performance management arrangements.
But perhaps most of all we should give thought to how to extend the beneficial influence of FE and skills providers across our education system, our economy and our society.
FE is at the heart of learning for the common good.
To be all we can be, we must ensure that that the landscape is revitalised and dynamic, where colleges and training organisations are constantly asking ‘can we do this better?’ There is no single prescription or ‘silver bullet’ - the structures that providers choose to adopt will vary according to their particular offer, itself shaped by demand. To excel we must dare to be different.
Future developments might include skills centres where colleges and individual providers come together to provide specialist, niche or new skills areas. Or Community Interest Companies set up to progress business or activity for the community’s benefit.
Or other types of partnership involving employers through National Skills Academies - ranging from centres of excellence based at existing colleges or training providers, to new stand-alone centres developed to meet changing markets, to networks of partners delivering learning through on-line provision.
Or through colleges and training organisations engaged with Group Training Associations and similar models that can help SMEs access training advice and aggregate demand so that local training provision can be adapted.
There is also scope to build on the model of University Technical Colleges or Technical Academies for 14-19 that I envisage, where the employer, the FE college and the associated university come together to prepare students for progression to higher education.
We can also strengthen and develop FE’s already-significant role in providing higher education itself. And I have no doubt that the forthcoming Higher Education White Paper will suggest further ways to strengthen the sector’s contribution both in helping people progress into higher education and in delivering higher education courses in their communities.
Demand side dynamism depends on supply side diversity.
Underpinning these challenges, there is scope to look at a wide range of organisational and business approaches: for example forms of employee mutualisation that directly involve the staff in college management, via employee trusts. Or colleges could establish or acquire a company or set up a trust in order to meet a specific need or deliver specific services, or participate in alliances such as federations or joint venture models to agree how collectively to meet the needs of learners and employers in their local communities.
All of this presents colleges with exciting opportunities to innovate and improve their provision in line with my vision for a reformed FE sector.
It has been an exciting year for FE and there is more excitement to come.
The contribution to building a better Britain that FE and skills is already making, and our plans to help you contribute even more are central to the Government’s mission.
Flagship policies for a flagship sector.
Growing FE, a growing economy and a growing society.
These three aims are inseparable and indispensable.
You and your fellow Principals and Governors, and how you frame your own unique offer, are at the heart of our ambitions for skills and the contributions they make to national growth.
Never has a Government believed as much in FE as I believe in you.
So fulfil my vision, our mission.
Renew our sector.
Renew our nation.