A former Downing Street advisor gives his insider view on what Gavin Williamson taking the skills brief will mean for the sector – and he does not believe the DfE’s promises this will make FE more of a priority.
What to make of the announcement – finally – that the Skills Minister portfolio will be held by the Secretary of State, rather than a junior minister?
On the one hand, clearly it’s a positive. FE will now have its voice heard around the Cabinet table, and by a senior member of the Cabinet at that. (It sounds technical, but more junior ‘attending Cabinet’ ministers – including Jo Johnson – tend to get called late on in any Cabinet discussion, after more senior ministers have spoken, and often when it is clear what the consensus view is likely to be and there’s less scope to make a counterpoint.)
But my overall view is that this not good for FE policymaking – and not good for the sector overall.
The secretary of state’s role, in any department, is largely to make final decisions on issues of policy. He or she does so, crucially, having taken detailed advice from junior Ministers who have considered any issue for more time. And the SoS also has an important role in being the final arbiter of a departmental position, when junior Ministers (politely, naturally), disagree with each other.
Both of these are at risk. Taking the first issue first, it is simply implausible for any secretary of state to dedicate as much time to FE as a junior minister will.
Gavin Williamson simply has too broad a portfolio to have diary space, or headspace, to do all the work that junior ministers do day in and day out – meeting stakeholders, engaging in discussions with civil servants, or doing committee work and dispatch box appearances in the Commons.
Good junior ministers are the lifeblood of making public administration run well. Any college, or FE organisation, is going to find it much harder to find time to discuss issues with the secretary of state than with a skills minister.
That means, in turn, that decisions made on these issues will not have necessarily had all the input from the FE sector which good policy requires.
This isn’t to say, of course, that the skills minister is the minister for the FE sector, and as no one needs pointing out, it’s not as if FE has always held a privileged position with regards DfE decisions, but at least government decisions on FE are theoretically informed ones.
The second issue is also now harder to achieve.
The SoS will need to make decisions in future months on the DfE position on anything from legislative time, to responding to other departmental proposals, to (pertinently) asking for funding in the Spending Review.
Human nature – and the experience of anyone who has watched impromptu children’s football games – tells us that if any individual is both a participant and a referee, it’s hard to do both well.
Let’s take a practical example – the policy on requiring post-16 GCSE resits.
The ‘skills’ perspective and ‘schools’ perspective on this may differ. If the secretary of state has considered the policy from a skills perspective and formed a view, would this realistically change when it comes to him for sign off as SoS, regardless of the merits of the counter argument?
Or let’s talk about funding. DfE will almost certainly want to ask for more money for FE in the Spending Review.
But it’s likely to want to do so for schools and for HE as well. If HMT says there isn’t enough for all of those and DfE has to prioritise, how is that final decision taken?
So, it’s bad for policy. But is it nevertheless good for FE if the SoS is – bluntly – biased towards them?
Cynically, that may be the case in some instances. But this is only true if he can genuinely take the time to form an opinion on the FE case.
Otherwise the risk is that in a discussion, a junior minister for another area, or a Secretary of State for another department, speaks up – and there’s no one in the room who makes the FE case at all.