It was exactly a year ago that we labelled the new skills minister Anne Milton “the fixer”, after she said in her speech to the AELP annual conference that she was motivated “to make it work” rather than introduce “new, bright ideas”.
So a year on and just a few days before she delivers her 2018 AELP speech, I am keen to find out what she thinks still needs fixing.
“I still stand by what I said then. I don’t really want to change anything, I just want to make it all work,” she tells me.
The 10-per-cent co-investment
With a stumbling start to the apprenticeship reforms, it seems demand from small employers has taken a dive and needs fixing. Is there any truth to the suggestion that the mandatory fees introduced last May might be reversed? In other words, will she be scrapping the 10-per-cent co-investment, something AELP hopes will be announced at the conference next week?
“Well, we are keeping an open mind on anything around, in the overall of apprenticeships,” she is quick to say.
“There’s a good body of evidence out there that a contribution from somebody is important, because it requires their buy-in to what they’re getting into. Sometimes if you get something for free, on the training side of it you don’t have quite such a buy-in. So I make no promises. We’re looking at everything.”
I agree that a fee contribution is important, but I press again on whether the rumours are true and that it could be scrapped, even temporarily.
“It’s not about whether the co-investment is working”, she says. “It’s about whether that 10 per cent is a barrier. People are sending me some of their evidence. We’re looking at it.
“I think there are bigger issues for smaller businesses. I think sometimes just taking on apprentice in the first place, irrespective of the 10 per cent, feels like quite a big step for business, particularly in quite uncertain times for small business. No discussions with Treasury looking at it, holding roundtables, doing exactly what I’ve done with the larger levy-payers. You know, getting them round a table, finding out exactly what’s going on.”
So I’m left with the impression that fixing SME participation is needed, and scrapping the co-investment requirement could well be in the mix, but if any change were imminent, the minister was careful not to give that away.
The T-level reforms steam ahead to a 2020 roll-out, against the advice of the lead civil servant at the Department for Education. The AoC is confident that colleges are ready for wave one but its chief executive worries about delays from legal challenges during the tenders for awarding organisation licences.
“No, I’m not worried. And I’m not somebody who worries,” she is quick to fire back. “If something could go wrong, then my aim is to put in place adequate mitigation to make sure it doesn’t go wrong, and so I don’t worry. I think the DfE is doing a lot of work. I know they had some meetings with the awarding organisations and we’re listening to them and hearing what will make this work better for them.”
And on widespread concerns over the T-level work-placement being mandatory, is there any consideration to avoid young people having a barrier in specific locations where there’s no placement?
“No,” she insists, firmly. “It is absolutely crucial. The T-level is all about the industry placement as well as the qualification.”
Adult education budget devolution
I’m keen to find out why the DfE is allowing the mayor of London to top-slice of £3 million to pay for new staff after he was denied an administration budget from the DfE. Surely she should be limiting raids on budgets like this, as it’s all being devolved?
“There are a lot of other sides to devolution and I’m actually quite in favour of this being devolved,” she says. “It will be for the mayoral authorities to work out how best they spend their funding.
“So if you devolve, you devolve. You need to talk to the Greater London Authority. It’s the upside and downside of devolution. But what I think is quite important is that you have somebody accountable for this. You have the mayor’s office. If you don’t feel that the GLA or any other of the combined authorities are spending their AEB well or if they’re taking too much of it up in admin, then you need to ask them.”
On any devolution of the AEB to other local commissioning areas, the minister makes it clear that there is “no further devolution for the moment. We’ll see how this goes. It will be very interesting to see if anything emerges from those combined areas that represents really good practice.”
College finances and mergers
“A shame,” is how the minister describes FE Week’s constant references to the £700 million college restructuring fund as bailouts. “It is meant to be money to help colleges merge, get back on their feet.”
“It’s a very, very rigorous process, in which I’m closely involved actually. The FE colleges are a really important part of our mix and what we need to do, and that budget was not about bailing anybody out. It was about making sure FE colleges are sustainable and will last for the future. They’re very important parts of the education mix, so a bailout it is not.”
I end by asking about mergers and the growth of mega-colleges. What lessons are being taken from Learndirect and warnings about organisations that become too big to fail?
“Too big to fail is not an invalid point,” the minister says. “I’m very mindful of colleges being too big to fail. I think we need to watch it.
“I have to say the scrutiny and oversight on colleges at the moment is probably more intense than it has ever been, particularly bearing in mind that it is a sector that is actually independent of government. And I’m seeing some really good results emerging, but you are right to highlight the point that when any sort of group, be it independent training providers or FE colleges, gets very big, we need to have more oversight on the possible risks that emerge. There are always opportunities when something is big, because of overhead costs, but we also have to be aware of the risks as well.”
And finally, it’s one of the best jobs in government
As we wrap up what has been a pretty technical and wide-ranging interview in just 20 minutes, the minister offers me a headline.
“Do you want a headline for your article?” she asks. “It’s that I have one of the best jobs in government. I spend my life meeting enthusiastic young and older people, brilliant independent training providers, fantastic colleges. All of the things I deal with are levers of social change, and I see the young people that have benefited from the social change that they can bring about in their own lives. I just needed to say that. I didn’t say that when I was at the Department of Health.”