The sector must be allowed to respond to demands from existing and new students, many of them disadvantaged, says Justine Greening. It must also be ready to help hundreds of thousands of people to reskill

Education transformed my life – and my time in further education at Thomas Rotherham College in south Yorkshire was a crucial part of that.

I studied there for the A-levels that helped me to become the first person in my family to go to university. But it gave some of my friends the chance to take a more vocational route.

FE colleges are the backbone of the education system that helps many young people take the next steps after leaving school. They especially matter for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and communities.

We already know that the education shutdown has most harmed those young people with the most restricted access to opportunity. They must be the priority for any education catch-up plan – which means that FE must also be a priority. It educates the young people with the least time left in the education system to regain lost time.

With recession looming, FE colleges could play a further crucial role. The steady digital shift of the economy meant there was already a need for the government to focus more on retraining and reskilling, but Covid-19 has turbocharged this shift.

FE has a pivotal role to play for this country over the next two years. It must be allowed to respond to demands from existing students and those arriving into the system – and it must be able to help hundreds of thousands of people to reskill.

“We cannot allow a new generation to have its talent wasted”

Now is the time for the government to truly recognise its importance. It will define how well we handle the challenge of keeping people on track with their careers in spite of everything the economy throws at them.

My father was out of work for a year after he lost his job in the steel industry in the 1980s. It was hard to reskill, especially with so little advice on what sort of role to retrain for. Facing what economic forecasters say may be another crisis of high unemployment, we cannot allow a new generation to have its talent wasted.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said that he would do “whatever it takes” to help businesses and families get through the coronavirus crisis. He must now apply that same ethos to helping our young people, and those needing to reskill, to get their education and future careers back on track. This is no time for penny-pinching on investing in this country’s most important asset – its people.

Ministers must work creatively with the FE sector and business to look beyond simply resourcing, to how they can reshape policies to boost the capacity for reskilling.

The apprenticeship levy is long-known to be overly restrictive for employers to invest in skills. In a deep recession it would be unjustifiable and unacceptable for levy accounts to have millions of pounds of unused funding for skills that employers and colleges could not invest in because of bureaucratic rules long overdue for a reshake.

For example, why not allow employers to roll over and invest unused apprenticeship levy more widely in skills training? This could perhaps help existing staff to retrain to prevent unemployment, or support those being made redundant in refocusing their skills towards a new career.

Only by getting around the table with the sector, including training providers and employers, can the right approach be worked out. But there is no time to lose. Employers who are committed to the Social Mobility Pledge that I founded to spread more opportunity to young people and reach Britain’s much wider talent pool, are also keen to play their role. The government needs to work with them to find out how it can enable them to do so, or at least not get in the way.

We had a national effort to help our NHS as we were hit by the peak of the coronavirus crisis. We now need the same national effort to help our education system cope with its aftermath and the huge disruption to young people.