Milton reflects on her time as skills minister

Anne Milton’s tenure as apprenticeships and skills minister came to an abrupt end on 23 July when she resigned just minutes after giving evidence to the Parliamentary education select committee.

She’s often described the role as “the best job in government”, but it was her “grave concerns” about leaving the EU without a Brexit deal that led to her decision to return to the backbenches.

Milton took on the skills brief at the Department for Education just over two years ago after Robert Halfon was sacked, and is now known as a strong champion of FE.

“It is without doubt the best job in government”

FE Week caught up with to discuss her time in office, and what she makes of prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial decision to not appoint a skills minister successor.

“It is without doubt the best job in government,” she says.

“You get to meet young and older people who still may have not found what they want to do, never discovered what they were capable of doing at school, and you see people of all ages reborn, if you like, with training from a college or apprenticeship.

“It is very inspiring. It is often quite moving to hear those stories.”

Milton says it was therefore a “very tough decision” to resign from a post that she “really enjoyed”, and one that has “real meaning”.

She adds that she has “no regrets” from her two-year tenure, but very many highlights.

Asked for her top three highlights, she says the first is the development of T-levels, work that she is “really proud of”.

“It is not easy to develop a new qualification, even if it is a new qualification that has a very clear purpose.

“I think the DfE made immense progress and did a fantastic job. I look forward to those coming online.”

Her second highlight is “raising the profile of apprenticeships”.

“In 2017 the levy had just come in and there was a lot of anger from business,” Milton explains.

“As business has taken on board the fact that from now there will be no changes to the levy, the negative noise has decreased so the reputation of apprenticeships has gone up.

“You start to get organisations like Airbus and Google and Microsoft and Deloitte doing apprenticeships, and that has really raised the status of apprenticeships and made it a real option not only for people who can’t get into university but an active choice for those that can.”

Her third highlight was having the chance to visit various FE colleges.

“Much of the public do not know what goes on in colleges and they are all very different, but it is phenomenal what they are doing,” Milton says.

“I’m pleased that by the time I left both the Love Our Colleges and Raise the Rate campaign have really got some traction amongst members of parliament.”

Just weeks after Milton resigned, Johnson announced a £400 million funding boost for further education, which included raising the FE base rate for first time since 2013 to £4,188.

But considering Raise the Rate was asking for an increase to £4,760 per sixth former, is the increase enough?

“I would like to see it be more,” Milton says.

“Government has to balance the books, there isn’t a never-ending pot of money and it is maybe about rebalancing some of the funding. I think if we really believe in FE being a real option then the money has to follow the words.”

Moving onto Johnson’s decision not to appoint a dedicated skills minister as her replacement, and instead having the education secretary lead on the brief with support from other ministers, Milton says she believes it is a good idea.

“There isn’t a never-ending pot of money and it is maybe about rebalancing some of the funding”

“For Gavin Williamson I think FE is a passion, him taking on the brief I am very happy with that.”

However, she warned the role requires “a lot of work” and fears that site visits to colleges and providers could be squeezed as a result.

The DfE appears to have recognised the workload pressures of the role, and now has three ministers splitting the FE brief, led by Williamson.

Milton uses her final words on FE to thank the “hundreds of people I have met in my two years as skills minister”.

“I have never met a more inspiring bunch of teachers, young people and older people. Carry on doing what you do very well.”

Milton was one of 21 Conservatives who voted against Johnson in last week’s key Brexit vote.

Currently sitting as an independent after losing the Tory whip, she says she’s mulling over whether to stand as an MP at the next election.

“My father told me that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted, so that’s what I am doing.”