Williamson’s bold claims of putting FE centre stage will be held to account – and what about adult learning?

Sector leaders will be holding Gavin Williamson’s feet to the fire after he wrote in FE Week he is “determined to put FE centre stage”.

The new education secretary’s words come after a flurry of sector activity by the government, including a £400 million funding boost and the awarding of FE portfolios to Michelle Donelan and Lord Agnew.

Sixth Form Colleges Association chief executive Bill Watkin said: “We are delighted to have a secretary of state in Gavin Williamson who is so committed to raising the profile of 16 to 19 education.

“His plan to Raise the Rate next year is an important statement of intent and shows that his support for the sector goes beyond warm words.”

Raise the Rate is a campaign spearheaded by the association to increase the funding baseline for learners aged 16 to 18 from £4,000 per year, to £4,760.

However, the £400 million will only raise the baseline to £4,188, from August next year.

Watkin continued: “Both Gavin and Michelle Donelan are former sixth form college students who have firsthand experience of how the sector can transform lives.

“For too long, 16-19 education in all its forms – academic, applied general and technical – has been overshadowed by pre-16 and higher education.”

Watkin has not taken his eyes off securing more funding though, saying: “We now have a secretary of state who is ideally placed to give the pivotal stage of further education the investment, profile and attention that it deserves.”

Since being appointed, Williamson has been conducting multiple visits to colleges, including to Westminster Kingsway to meet Team UK before WorldSkills 2019; and to Leeds City College to open a new £60 million building.

And it has made an impression on the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes, who said: “I am delighted the secretary of state is taking personal responsibility for further education and colleges – already we have seen the fruits of that, with the £400 million pledge last week from the chancellor.”

Upon reading Williamson’s promise to give FE “all the support and credit it has so long deserved”, Hughes added: “It is widely accepted colleges have been neglected in funding and policy terms for the last decade or more and our #LoveOurColleges campaign has been an important part in changing that.”

#LoveOurColleges, much like Raise the Rate, is looking to increase the baseline – but up to £5,000.

“Gavin Williamson has shown how much he values colleges and the role they play in the wider education system,” Hughes said.

“We will work closely with him to ensure that next year’s spending review builds on that with a long term and proper funding settlement.”

However, one area of the sector snubbed by the chancellor in the Spending Review and missing from the education secretary’s trip schedule is adult education.

Sue Pember, former director of FE at the Department for Education and now director of policy at adult education network HOLEX, said: “We welcome Gavin Williamson’s enthusiasm for FE as long as he realises that FE is not all about 16 to 19, but also covers adult learning and all levels of educational ability.

“One of his first priorities must be to build a progression ladder from pre-entry through to level 2.

The lack of interest and investment in these fundamental building blocks is inadequate and must be urgently addressed.”

But on the other hand, Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Mark Dawe said it was “wonderful” to see Williamson describe apprenticeships as a “win-win” for the employer and the young person in his op-ed for FE Week.

“In a nutshell, he has identified why the programme is so popular and AELP wants to work with him and his team to ensure that all employers have the opportunity to take advantage of our fantastic flagship skills programme.”

Dawe also praised Williamson’s meeting with Team UK, saying: “The ambition should be to embed the teaching of world-beating standards into all technical and vocational education which takes place in this country.”