I’ve been appointed as Minister for apprenticeships and skills. I am very excited and very happy. My first speech as a backbencher in the House of Commons was on apprenticeships – I’d never have thought that one day I’d be responsible for an area I am so passionate about.
I know it is important to set priorities for my brief straight away. For me they are:
- improving the prestige of technical education, including apprenticeships;
- helping people get on the ladder of opportunity, especially those from a socially disadvantaged background;
- Making the funding system sustainable in the long term, through the apprenticeship levy;
- reaching three million new apprentices by 2020;
- raising the quality of technical education, making sure it provides people with the skills they need for long term success.
I spent the last days of July in teach-in after teach-in, learning every possible aspect and area of my brief. I quickly found that there are some truly outstanding people working in my department, who are really dedicated to transforming the skills base of our country.
I am working on the announcement we made in August on apprenticeship funding. The document states clearly that we are consulting on the funding and that we will consider all responses with attention. I am looking forward to hearing all the views from stakeholders to help us shape the final policy.
I continue with teach-ins, keen to get to grips with this exciting policy area.
I carry on working on the apprenticeship funding proposals, as they need to be finalised by the end of October. But I am also working on other areas of the brief: careers, FE, skills. The ministerial boxes start coming, as every day I’m given a number of submissions to discuss with officials – everything from changes that might be happening in FE colleges to proposals on helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds progress in their careers.
I make the decision to attend a Parliamentary rally organised by FE Week, supported by David Lammy and Gordon Marsden, on funding for frameworks for 16- to 18-year-olds to be protected in the new system. I feel it is important to listen to their concerns.
The end of September brings my first tour as minister: from Durham to Cambridgeshire, via Blackpool, I learn about great colleges and amazing opportunities.
Although I have visited my local college in Harlow over 50 times since being an MP, I know that it is incredibly important to see what’s going on all over the country. I learn more from what I see on the ground than from almost anything else and meeting the people who make apprenticeships and skills education a success is an inspiration.
My first visit is to the brilliant New College Durham, who have been achieving outstanding results. Then I go to Derwentside College, where they train 5,800 apprentices, some doing healthcare, whom I meet in person. I also have the opportunity to see the incredible, highly technical work of apprentices at Unipres in Sunderland, just another example of how varied and excellent the apprenticeship offer is. Next is Churchill College, which is implementing the principles outlined in the Gatsby Foundation review into careers services.
We then drive to Blackpool to visit the Blackpool and the Fylde College, another incredible place. I sit in a career session organised by Blackpool Buildup, a partnership of the college which trains the long-term unemployed in construction.
After Blackpool, I move on to the Cambridge Regional College where I am told that the hospitality and catering apprentices are going to cook squirrel. I thought it was a joke until I saw it for myself. I also visited West Suffolk College who have been doing a lot of work to ensure their learners reach their full potential.
But it’s not just about colleges. I get the chance to visit a pub in Cambridge to meet the inspirational young apprentices employed by Greene King. This company supports many apprentices who are single parents, fitting their apprenticeships around their very hectic lives. I am really impressed by the quality and commitment of the people I meet, a clear sign that a flexible approach is key to success.
October always starts with the Conservative Party conference, in Birmingham this year.
It is my first public outing as minister for skills and apprenticeships in terms of speeches and events. Every year, the best part of conference is visiting the apprenticeship zone, a key part of every Conservative conference. There I meet young apprentices from many different companies, like Fujitsu and Pimlico Plumbers, whose life options are being transformed by apprenticeships. I find it truly amazing that level two apprentices can earn up to £74,000 more over their lifetime, thanks to the skills they gain (this goes up to £117,000 for level three apprentices and £150,000 for higher levels).
Back from conference and it’s back to work. We also start planning the introduction to Parliament, in late October, of the new Technical and Further Education bill. This bill will expand the remit of the Institute for Apprenticeships to include technical education, as well as ensure students are protected when their college falls into financial difficulty. There will be a lot more work on this in the weeks and months ahead.
After a huge amount of work, having listened carefully to all stakeholders, we publish the final apprenticeship funding proposals. The new funding, on one side, helps improve productivity, but also reflects the Government’s commitment to address social disadvantage. That’s why we are doing so much to encourage employers to hire apprentices of all ages and people from deprived areas across country.
For the most part the levy gets a good response. Even FE Week describes it as “a big step in the right direction”.
Early November 2016
I have two debates and my first appearance in front of the education, skills and the economy sub-committee, something clearly noted regularly on social media by FE Week.
These first few months have certainly been very interesting. It is wonderful to do this job and to play a part in helping to improve the skills, apprenticeships and careers offering in our country.
Very early on in the job, I said “FE Week makes the social media of a minister unbearable but complacency impossible”. I stand by my words and appreciate the importance of being challenged.