The pattern of constant political churn among ministers responsible for the further education sector has shown no sign of changing. Robert Halfon, a keen supporter of apprenticeships, had only been apprenticeships and skills minister for 11 months before being replaced a few weeks after last year’s snap general election with Anne Milton.
However, Halfon continued his support of the FE sector after being elected chair of the Commons Education Select Committee shortly after in July last year. "Social justice and productivity will be at the heart of our work on the Education Committee over this Parliament,” he said.
“How our education system helps to improve young people’s lives and puts them on the ladder of opportunity will be placed front and centre of our programme of work.” One of the committee’s key priorities has been to scrutinise the quality of apprenticeships training and sub-contractors.
Push for more female apprentices
Milton, too, has proved herself a keen supporter of apprenticeships, promoting the need for more women apprentices. She has overseen much of the difficult birth of the apprenticeship levy introduced in April 2017. Despite numbers of apprenticeship starts under the new funding regime well below the previous year’s figures, Milton has predicted a surge in starts during the next academic year.
Reasons given by employers for the poor showing include over-complex and inflexible rules on drawing down funding, insufficient government financial support – particularly for SMEs, government insistence on 20% off-the-job training, and too much emphasis on numerical targets at the expense of quality. A number of employers say they have also been hamstrung by only being allowed to transfer a maximum 10% of their levy funds to sub-contractors and other employers when they themselves are unable to meet certain apprenticeship training needs.
This month, however, revised funding guidelines for sub-contracting are due to be published by the sector, so watch this space.
All change at Westminster
Change at the top of the Department for Education saw social mobility protagonist Justine Greening resign as education secretary to be replaced by Damian Hinds. When leaving her post, she tweeted: “Social mobility matters to me and our country more than my ministerial career.”
During her tenure, Greening had introduced 12 opportunity areas in England to increase social mobility, particularly among disadvantaged young people. Just months before her departure, she launched the new technical T-levels, an integral part of the government’s Industrial Strategy white paper whose aim is to increase productivity, innovation and skill levels in the workplace. As a strong advocate for the 50% of young people who opt for a vocational rather than academic career route, Greening described the new T-level courses for 16-19s as “the greatest shake-up of further education in 70 years”.
At around the same time, Greening invited bids from colleges interested in a share of a £170m capital fund to set up and run new institutes of technology - specialist institutes in Stem subjects based on close cooperation between FE colleges, universities and employers and giving students qualifications highly prized by local businesses. The winning colleges will be informed in March 2019.
Careers advice takes centre stage
Meanwhile, since taking over in January 2018, Hinds has emphasised the need to improve careers education as shown in the government’s new careers strategy. Only last month Hinds named some 60 FE colleges that will play central roles in a career hub network across England.
Hinds’ ministerial background at the Department for Work and Pensions, where he was responsible for youth employment, is said to have equipped him well to steer through the 2020 launch of T-levels and sort out the problem of finding large numbers of high standard work placements.
Also under Hinds’ watch is the future implementation of new college insolvency rules, reflecting the increasing financial difficulties faced by many colleges. The rules are designed to help safeguard student interests by rescuing any struggling colleges as going concerns, or at least maintaining college provision until students have finished their courses or been found places at other colleges.
Colleges under pressure to benefit from sector brains trust
In another development, colleges that may be financially stable but still struggle to raise their Ofsted grade will now be able to receive help from a government taskforce of successful FE leaders set up this year.
Learning providers in the private sector have had their fair share of problems and setbacks, notably the UK’s largest independent learning provider, LearnDirect. It gained an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating, which after an extended dispute has caused it to lose all its funding from the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
Last but not least has been the launch of the National College for Nuclear – the fourth of five planned centres of excellence for specialist industries that offer courses at levels 4-6. The others focus separately on high-speed rail, creative/cultural industries and digital skills.
Job satisfaction keeps FE staff loyal
Leafing through the AoC’s job profiles, I can’t help but notice that huge job satisfaction is what continues to get most FE staff up in the morning and why they continue to work in the sector – it’s the feeling of working in a unique environment where staff can constantly see the difference they are making to their students’ lives.
It’s now time for the FE sector to come of age and get the funding, political voice and deserved status it has lacked so far. Many people have told me about the desperate need for a focused, independent FE pressure group. The likelihood of more suggested cuts on the way could depend on how loud FE colleges protest to ward off this very real threat.
My question is will the three Tory MPs appointed as volunteer ambassadors for the apprenticeship programme and due to start work this October be able to get the FE ball rolling?