Milton offers Q&A session to fill gap left at conference

Milton offers Q&A session to fill gap left at the conference

Tory politicians did themselves few favours at the AoC’s annual conference last month. Education secretary Damian Hinds failed to fill his scheduled keynote slot because of ministerial business and, due to a train delay, the normally enthusiastic skills minister, Anne Milton, read out a prepared script for 15 minutes and could take no questions before having to return to Westminster.

But appearances can deceive. What could have been regarded as a missed opportunity blossomed two weeks later into an exclusive 30-minute Q&A video session on YouTube between AoC boss David Hughes and the minister, who said she was disappointed she had not had time for a podium Q&A.

Putting the two sessions together, here’s the minister’s take on a selection of key issues affecting FE. 


Evidence of strong skills base among FE staff

To underline the solid skills base of FE staff, Milton quoted from the government’s College Staff survey, published on the first day of the conference. The report revealed two thirds of teachers had been employed in industry before entering the sector as had 82% of principals and 73% of leaders. Milton said the government’s £5m Taking Teaching Further programme would be supporting up to 150 professionals from industry to become teachers.

Then she moved on to apprenticeships: the government’s new apprenticeship feedback tool had generated more than 4,000 responses from employers on the quality of their apprenticeship training providers. Milton said almost 90% judged their providers as good or excellent and that apprentices would soon also be asked to rate their providers. 


Register of training providers to re-open - permanently

However, in response to reports of low apprenticeship standards in certain areas, Milton rather missed a trick by not announcing in her speech that December 12 would be the day the controversial register of apprenticeship training providers would be reopened - it was actually announced five days later. 

The good news is the register will be permanently open so new providers can apply whenever they are ready, although all those already registered (including colleges) will have to reapply over the next 12 months. 

Milton said the relaunch was designed “to strengthen the application process and raise the bar for entry”. In an effort to reduce competition between providers for employers’ apprenticeship contracts, she also called on colleges to offer more apprenticeship training and, where possible, to collaborate with independent training providers.


Fairer funding system to non-levy payers?

Heavily linked to the government’s drive for a larger UK technical skills base are, of course, the forthcoming T-levels. Milton continued to hype them up by reiterating the £38m set aside to improve facilities and equipment in colleges preparing to offer the fjrst three pathways from September 2020, and up to £20m to be spent before March 2020 on professional development and other support for the first T-level teachers.

Apprenticeship funding was a key issue in the Q&A. David Hughes challenged the minister by asking how to solve the problem where many colleges had used up all of their non-levy allocations and were actually having to turn away employers and apprentices. “I want non-levy employers [just as levy payers do now] to access their own accounts and work with colleges, in particular, to get that training, without restrictions,” said Milton. 

“We are making a decision on that coming up because the only other alternative is to run procurements so that colleges and independent training providers can bid into that, but when that money is finished, it’s finished. Procurements never run smoothly - somebody always loses out. I don’t like procurements and I know for some colleges this has been a really difficult time.”


Should all apprenticeships receive funding?

Another Q&A question was should the levy really be used for high-cost degree apprenticeships by people already in work, doing second degrees, or changing career and going into nursing, for instance. Milton said the government was looking afresh at the apprenticeship levy. Just under 90% of all apprenticeships were level 2 and 3 but the government would soon need to ask if it was right to fund all apprenticeships at the level it does. 

“To me, the system should be about that second, third, fourth chance. It is also about progression - many people stop at level 2 and we want to increase their aspiration to do a level 3 and critically level 4 where we have traditionally been weak in the UK - not many level 4 and 5 qualifications are done.”

Switching to college management in her conference speech, the minister was at pains to stress the need for “high-quality leadership and governance” and announced the launch of a college governance guide that “clearly set out recommended practice” and what the government expects of governors. 


How to avoid getting into financial straits?

The guide would shortly be backed up by a learning development programme for chairs, governors and clerks. Milton said some colleges she’d seen could often have avoided getting into severe financial straits if only they had had a “strong board and leadership” in place, not just well meaning principals and governors lacking robust financial management skills - comments that did raise one or two hackles in the audience.

Her final announcement at the conference was about the same-day government publication of a report on FE’s contribution to social mobility. It corroborated what colleges have long known - that they play a crucial role in helping those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and areas to achieve success.

Richard Doughty

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