Williamson taken to task on Conservative manifesto

While the Conservatives’ manifesto published on Sunday had some eye-catching FE pledges, including a new £3 billion national skills fund and £1.8 billion for college capital, there were some notable omissions. FE Week chief reporter Billy Camden has taken education secretary Gavin Williamson to task on the areas his party appeared to dodge.

 

The Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto had a target for apprenticeships of three million starts. Why isn’t there a numerical target this time round?

“It is one of my key missions to get more young people and people of all ages looking at the options of what apprenticeships really are able to offer. 

“Over the last few years you have seen a complete change in terms of our approach to apprenticeships. It is about trying to ensure everyone has the real quality that needs to flow through every single one of them and that is where our focus will continue.

“I want to see an awful lot more of them as well. I think the opportunity for young people to earn and learn at the same time is one of the best opportunities that you can possibly get. 

“Do I want to see the quality improve? Yes. Do I want to see the number of people taking them increase? Yes I do.”

 

We understand that you want more apprenticeships, but why no target in this manifesto? Are there lessons learnt from the failure to achieve the three-million target?

“The focus is driving quality and opportunities. We can all bandy around numbers but it [the manifesto] is focusing on delivering on quality apprenticeships that lead to long careers and that is where the focus has got to be. But we do want to see a substantial increase in the number of people taking apprenticeships.”

 

It has been widely reported – and the government itself has recognised – that the apprenticeships budget is not sustainable in its current form. The Conservative manifesto offered no solutions to alleviate funding pressure, other than promising to “look at how we can improve the working of the apprenticeship levy”. Why were no solutions put forward in the manifesto? 

“These discussions will happen around the spending review. If you look at the way we’re doing the national skills fund, investing £3 billion over a five-year period, you can see how seriously we’re taking the issue of skills and training. 

“In terms of apprenticeships, they are an absolutely critical part of this. In the manifesto we have outlined the direction of travel in terms of the value we are putting on apprenticeships, the fact we are going to be making more apprenticeships, the levy is an absolute vital part of that. 

“Making sure that the levy is properly funded and that it is able to satisfy the needs of industry is critical – and we recognise that. It will be part of the discussion on the spending review.”

 

There wasn’t a single mention of T-levels in the manifesto. Is this a sign that the government is softening its commitment to them?

“No, not at all. It’s like all manifestos, it can only have so many pages and it is almost impossible to mention absolutely everything.

“It is not because they’re not important, it is just an absolute given that T-levels are there.

“T-levels are absolutely the centre point of what we are doing in technical education. I have talked extensively about it as education secretary and it is something we are backing up with cold, hard cash as well.

“I think you’ll struggle to recall when you’ve had a secretary of state for education where they’ve addressed their party conference and spent so long talking about the importance of further and technical education. It’s at the heart of what we’re going to do.”

 

Moving on to funding for 16 to 18-year-olds, the manifesto has no promise to further increase the base rate beyond the modest increase announced in August – why? Can you give any guarantee to the sector that this funding will be addressed? If so, by when?

“That extra £400 million [announced in August] was something that was needed and was welcomed in the sector. I think £400 million is a lot of money – if that is not your view I’d love to see your house.

 “It is a great investment in terms of what we are trying to do and a real sense of intent. 

“You know, a manifesto isn’t a spending review and both I and the chancellor have been clear that we are going to set things up for the future and want a skills revolution. I recognise there are costs in doing that and that’s what we’ll be having as part of our spending review discussions. 

“We’ll be asking more for it [the 16-18 base rate] and we’ll be always asking more of everything,  whether that is FE colleges or schools.”

 

What do you make of the criticism that the 16 to 18 rate rise (from £4,000 to £4,188 per student) announced in August isn’t nearly enough?

“What I feel is we’ve put £400 million towards FE. I think the fact that we’ve also targeted a chunk of that funding to the most high-cost courses is a quite logical thing to do.

“We don’t want to lose those areas of skills, so that was a choice that I had to make and I thought that we don’t want colleges to be getting rid of higher-cost courses and also courses that really add to the productivity of the country.

“I think that’s a much more logical approach because otherwise the things you would be saying to me would be ‘what are you going to do about high-cost courses’? Maybe that’s me being a bit cynical and people might disagree with it, but I think it was the right decision.”

 

Announced as the “centrepiece” of the Conservatives’ skills plan, a new national skills fund has been backed with £600 million a year. The proposal is to offer matched funding for learners and small employers for high-quality education and training, but what does it actually mean and how will it work?

“What we’ll be doing is going out to consultation very, very rapidly. We’re putting forward a system, we’ve got the commitment in terms of £3 billion over a parliament in terms of delivering that, but we’re going to be coming forward with more details of how that looks and how that is going to be in the not-too-distant future.

“I think the best approach to doing this is working with those people who are going to be delivering it, it is also going to be working with those people who are going to be using it for their businesses. 

“We want to have the opportunity to do a proper consultation, to implement it and they get it out there as rapidly as possible so it starts having a real improvement in terms of people’s lives – but also businesses as well.”

 

There seems to be a bit of overlap with the national retaining scheme in terms of its aims – is the national skills fund going to replace the NRS?

“They are both going to sit side by side.”

 

Lastly, the promised £1.8 billion won’t come in until April 2021 – why the delay?

“We’re making sure this is a commitment over the parliament, so it is over a five-year period. I will be working very closely with colleges to ensure that they have got the right types of plans and I’m not sure if you recall but Labour got themselves into a bit of a mess on this, didn’t they? 

“There has been a fright history on capital projects with some colleges that have not always delivered [the Labour government shelved a major FE college capital programme in 2009. Seventy nine capital project applications had been approved in principle but only 22 subsequently received final approval].

“What we want to do is make sure the plans coming forward are right – we want to make sure the colleges that are applying to this capital fund are in a position to be able to manage it properly and they’re in a position to be able to deliver the very best for their students. That is what this is aimed at. 

“The ability to switch on a capital project literally overnight is not really that viable. We’re going to be expecting real thought going into these plans because it’s not an infinite amount of money, it’s a substantial amount of money and we want to make sure it is well spent.”