Gavin Williamson's speech on FE reform: The full text

Hello. It is a great pleasure to be here with you today and I’d like to thank not only the Social Market Foundation for hosting this, but also you for joining me.

We have all been busy, in different ways, dealing with the impact of COVID-19. The way people live, the jobs people have, in some cases the industries that are the bedrock of our economy, have all changed overnight. The unprecedented challenge posed by the pandemic has made it even more important to invest in long-term change and to think seriously about the post-16 education system we need in this country.

Education is a keystone of our society and it’s one we can be very proud of.

There is so much right with our education system but when it comes to further education, too many people here don’t value it as much as they should.

FE stands for Further Education but for too long it may as well have stood for Forgotten Education.

I don’t accept this absurd mantra, that if you are not part of the 50% of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short. You have become one of the forgotten 50% who choose another path.

It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really, they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment. Especially when the evidence demonstrates that further education can open the doors to greater opportunity, better prospects and transform lives.

We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job.

I know that many people listening to this speech will have gone to schools where almost of all their classmates went on to university. It was expected: a rite of passage, a matter of course.

That wasn’t the case for me. Many of my friends from school went into further education. And they did very well there. It opened up opportunities and took them to where they wanted to be. They now have great jobs and are rightly proud of what they have achieved.

And further education helped them achieve that.

As I said, Covid-19 has thrown many of our assumptions into sharp relief.

I’d like to thank all colleges and other FE providers for the tremendous work they been doing to enable learning to continue throughout lockdown, including moving courses online, supporting learners and apprentices, delivering meals to disadvantaged young people.

The proportion of learners that colleges have managed to keep engaged is astounding. And while the challenge of moving learning online has been formidable, the success with which it has been achieved demonstrates the vast potential of digital learning – and the potential to transform education further as the pace of technological change continues to accelerate.

And I’m absolutely delighted to stand here today, following the Prime Minister’s announcement last week of an ‘Opportunity Guarantee’, giving every young person the chance of an apprenticeship or an in-work placement, so that they maintain the skills and confidence they need to find the job that is right for them.

The Chancellor set out the extraordinary details of that pledge yesterday. This included a major £2 billion ‘kickstart scheme’ to make sure no young person is left behind as a result of coronavirus, an investment of £111m in the largest-ever expansion in traineeships; the doubling of front line staff at job centres, as well as an extra £32m for recruiting extra careers advisers and £17m for work academies in England.

The Government is also providing £101 million to support school and college leavers to take high value Level 2 and Level 3 courses, where there are not employment opportunities available to them.

There will also be a massive boost to apprenticeships as businesses that sign up to employ new apprentices aged 16-24 between 1 August 2020 and the 31 January 2021 will receive an additional cash payment of £2000 per new apprentice hired, and £1500 if they hire a new apprentice aged 25 plus.

Together with the fast-tracking of £200m of capital funding announced last month, this investment represents a clear vote of confidence by this government in further education.

When I first came into this job, I was firmly of the belief that there needed to be a major shift in how we treat further education.

Not just because of its importance in levelling up.

Not just because it’s about delivering for all those communities who we, as Conservatives, are representing for the first time.

But because further education is vital if we want our country to grow economically and our productivity to improve.

We need fundamental change, not just tinkering around the edges.

As we recover from this tragedy, further education will be even more important than ever.

The development of technical and vocational skills, the greater embedding of digital skills – will be vital to charting our course to recovery.

There will be a tremendous need for upskilling, reskilling and retraining. Getting people back into work as quickly as possible.

And further education will be at the very heart of that mission. Its ability to offer flexible, practical training that leads directly to jobs is exactly what this country needs.

Local colleges firmly tapped into local business needs will get Britain working again.

Further education is central to our mission of levelling up the nation. Or quite simply, giving people the skills that they need to get the jobs that they want.

If you want to transform many of our left-behind towns and regions, you don’t do it by investing more money solely in universities. You invest in the local college – the beating hearts of so many of our towns.

By driving up the skills base of a community we drive up what it will achieve.

But unfortunately, we’ve not been providing as many of our young people with this opportunity as we should.

Since becoming Education Secretary, I was shocked to discover that while the number of people going to university has increased, the total number of adults in education has actually fallen.

So what’s driven that fall?

The number of adult learners in Further Education has plummeted, from 3.1 million to 2.1 million.

There has been a systemic decline in higher technical qualifications. Well over 100,000 people were doing Higher National Certificates and Diplomas in the year 2000; that has reduced to fewer than 35,000 now.

Within Higher Education Institutes, foundation degrees have declined from a high of 81,000, to approximately 30,000.

Undergraduate part-time study in higher education has also fallen significantly, from nearly 250,000 in 2010 to under 100,000.

Together, these more than outweigh the increase in young people going to university.

And for those who haven’t achieved the equivalent of A-Levels by age 18, the chances of proceeding to higher levels of qualifications is, as Philip Augar’s report puts it, ‘virtually non-existent.’

Unlike almost every other OECD nation, young people are no more likely to have basic literacy and numeracy skills than those over 55.

We’re writing off people who have a tremendous potential to contribute to our society.

Unless we change our course, we are condemning our country to low productivity and lost opportunity for a generation.

For decades, we have failed to give further education the investment it deserves. Of course, we know universities have an important role to play in our economy, society and culture. But it’s clear that there are limits to what can be achieved by sending ever more people to university, which is not always what the individual or our nation needs. In February I got sent a copy of the Oxford Review of Education’s special edition, about Higher Education and the labour market.

The introduction by Hugh Lauder and Ken Mayhew set out the facts.

Consistently across countries, there is evidence of filtering down in the labour market. That means that graduates are competing for jobs that used to be – and could still be – done by non-graduates. And a significant proportion of graduates fail to gain much advantage from going to university at all.

It reinforces what we already know. Green and Henseke have found that 34% of our graduates are in non-graduate jobs, more than any other countries in Europe except for Ireland and the Czech Republic. And employers say that too often, graduates don’t have the skills they need, whether that’s practical know-how or basic numeracy and literacy.

To quote Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce: ‘unless we improve the transition from the world of education to the world of work in the United Kingdom, we will not fix our long-standing issues around productivity’.

As it stands, productivity is only 4% higher than the level it was in 2008. At the same time, our businesses are crying out for skilled technicians.

Only 10% of all adults aged 18-65 hold a Higher Technical Qualification as their highest qualification. This compares to around 20% of adults in Germany and as much as 34% in Canada.

Skilled trade and professional occupations, in sectors such as manufacturing and construction, report some of the highest skills shortages.

Many of these occupations require intermediate or higher technical qualifications – precisely the things that we are not teaching.

Simply as a nation we seem to have given up on them when these are the skills we need most to have a chance of competing against other nations.

And let’s not pretend these qualifications are in any way inferior to a degree.

The outcomes speak for themselves. Five years after completion, the average Higher Technical Apprentice earns more than the average graduate.

I’d like to pause on that point just for a moment. A work-based, technical apprenticeship, lasting around 2 years, gives greater returns than the typical three year bachelor’s degree.

For too long, we’ve been training people for jobs that don’t exist. We need to train them for the jobs that do exist and will exist in the future.

We have to end the focus on qualifications for qualifications sake. We need fundamental reform: a wholesale rebalancing towards further and technical education.

And across our entire post-16 sector, we need a much stronger alignment with the economic and societal needs of the nation.

The tragedy is that for decades, we’ve forgotten about half of our education system.

When Tony Blair uttered that 50% target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50%. It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose.

Governments of all colours have failed to give the other 50% of young people the support and investment that they deserve. And all the energy and effort of our policy experts and media has been concentrated on the route that we took ourselves, driving more people into higher education.

We’ve focused on what we’re familiar with, not what the nation needs. We’ve been carefully building up a patch of sand in front of our nose, and haven’t noticed the tide sweeping in around us.

That has to change.

As Education Secretary, I will stand for the forgotten 50%.

From now on, our mantra must be Further Education, Further Education, Further Education.

My personal commitment is to put further and technical education at the heart of our post-16 education system. Like the Prime Minister, I believe that talent and genius are expressed as much by the hand and by the eye as they are in a spreadsheet or an essay.

We need to create and support opportunities for those who don’t want to go to university, not write them off – or drive them down a path that, can all too often, end with graduates not having the skills they need to find meaningful work.

What, what could be more dispiriting for a young person to think that the only way they can succeed is if they undertake a degree – only to find that it doesn’t open the doors that they dreamed of? Further education, our colleges, are fundamental to our success: to opportunity, to productivity and to levelling up every part of our great nation.

It’s about transforming lives, getting people into jobs where they can have pride in what they do and they can have money in their pocket.

A lot of Education Secretaries across the years have said they want to support further education.

I know some of you will feel you’ve heard all of this before. That you’ll feel a sense of fatigue from reforms that didn’t go far enough.

And of course, we have made some progress:

The introduction of the apprenticeship levy and the move to employer-led standards; the Sainsbury Review – which we are well on the way to implementing – and the introduction of T Levels.

But, we need to go further, we need to go further and we need to go faster: to remove qualifications that are just not fit for purpose; to tackle low quality higher education; and to give colleges the powers and resources that they need to truly drive change.

But I recognise that we cannot just talk – we must act.

We’ve already made a start.

We’ve begun transforming the post-16 landscape with our new high-quality apprenticeships and ground-breaking T Levels. The first T Levels will be delivered from September this year in Digital, Education and Childcare, and Construction.

In the Spring Budget we announced an additional £1.5bn to upgrade the further education college estate. This is the largest capital investment in the sector in a generation and will enable colleges everywhere in England to have buildings and facilities that can deliver world class tuition.

We have also committed to a new £2.5 billion National Skills Fund. This will galvanise our ability to get people working, as well as giving those already in work the chance to train for higher-skilled and better-paid jobs.

How we spend that money will be critical.

That’s why this autumn I will be publishing a White Paper that will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities.

This will not be about incremental change, but a comprehensive plan to change the fundamentals of England’s further education landscape, inspired by the best models from around the world.

It will be centred upon two things.

Firstly, high quality qualifications based on employer-led standards. All apprenticeships starts will be based on those standards from August this year and we will be looking to place such standards at the heart of our whole technical education system.

Secondly, colleges playing a leading role in developing skills in their areas, driving an ambitious agenda that responds to local economic need and acting as centres for businesses and their development.

Let’s talk about these a bit more.

At the moment there are more than 12 thousand different qualifications at level 3 and below.

I think we can all agree this is a ridiculous number.

We are carrying out a review, to simplify the system so that young people and adults can have a simpler and consistently high-quality set of choices, with a clear line of sight to study at higher levels.

Qualifications which no-one takes, or that are poor quality, look likely to go in their thousands. Later this year, we will set out a detailed plan for the implementation of this reform.

We will continue to drive forward apprenticeships giving more young people the opportunity to learn while they work. Our new employer-led standards are already making a difference, with almost three quarters of all new starts using these standards.

As we recover from COVID-19, apprenticeships will have a critical role to play in creating employment opportunities, particularly for young people. We are looking to support employers of all sizes – and particularly smaller businesses – to take on new apprentices this year and will also ensure that there is sufficient funding to support small businesses to do so.

As the British Chambers of Commerce has said, support for vocational education and for apprenticeships are crucial to the Government’s ambition to ‘level up’ opportunities across the United Kingdom.

And following our consultation last year we will be bringing forward plans to reverse the decline in higher technical education so that we can begin once more to train people for the jobs that the economy actually needs.

We will be establishing a high-quality system of higher technical education. We want learners and employers to have confidence in high-quality courses that provide the skills they need to succeed, whether they are taught in a college in Yeovil or a university in Yorkshire. And we want to do much more to open up more flexible ways of studying, including better support for modular learning.

Reforming and growing higher technical education will be a long-term endeavour. We want to see our great further education colleges expanding their higher technical provision. And although this speech is about further education, universities can be an important part of the solution, if they are willing to significantly step up their provision of higher technical qualifications.

Of course, qualifications are only half of the picture. Equally important is where they are taught.

Colleges already play a leading role in many local communities and work with local businesses on skills and economic development, but we need to build on this in a far more systemic way.

I want colleges to be pivotal in their communities, training local people to work in local businesses, so that everyone feels the benefit.

So today I would like to spell out how our colleges should look in the future.

They should be led by great leaders and governors who are drawn from local communities and businesses, and teaching staff who have already have experience working in and with industry…

They should have industry-grade equipment and modern buildings which are great places to learn in and which act as centres for business development and innovation…

They should deliver courses that are of the highest quality and which are tailored to the needs of employers and their local economies…

They should work with small, local businesses to support the introduction of new technology and processes, and offer training in emerging skills….

And there should be a robust system of governance so that every college is financially secure, flexible and dynamic.

We are also driving forward our network of Institutes of Technology. They will lead the way on delivering higher technical skills in science, technology, engineering, and maths – skills that will give this country a competitive edge not just in the industries of today, but, just as importantly, those of tomorrow.

The first 12 are being rolled out across the country, ready to deliver the next generation of technicians and engineers, and more will follow soon.

There is so much excellent work happening in our colleges already. I know many of you will have been making a tremendous contribution, particularly during the Covid outbreak, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for everything you do.

Good colleges change lives, hundreds of thousands of lives, every year.

But we all know that those amazing and fantastic colleges are built on having fantastic teachers. We need to do more to encourage great people to teach in our great colleges – and to give colleges the ability to reward them properly.

Those who can, teach.

Our T Level Professional Development offer will give those currently working in Further Education the skills they need to deliver T Levels, and the Taking Teaching Further programme will encourage more high-calibre individuals with industry experience into Further Education teaching roles.

We’ll be continuing to develop good leadership and governance through the new College Collaboration Fund. This will enable great leadership development programmes to be made more broadly available to other colleges. I realise I am placing a huge burden of expectation on our colleges. But I know that with strong leaders and good governance it’s one they’ll be more than a match for. I want them to know that they can count on me to give them the resources they need to do the job.

Some people say that further education and apprenticeships are for other people’s children.

Let me be clear: I don’t.

I’d be delighted if my children went to college or did an apprenticeship.

In fact, as a Yorkshireman, I have to say there’d be something quite appealing about them learning and earning at the same time.

And I know that the education they would receive would serve them well.

Further education is central to transforming regions and transforming lives.

It’s fundamental to social mobility.

Fundamental to businesses and it’s fundamental to the economy.

Fundamental to levelling up the country and delivering on the promises we made to all those who put their trust in this Government for the first time last year.

It’s high time that we all started to feel the same kind of burning pride for our colleges and the people who study there, that we feel for our great universities and our great schools.

No longer can we persist in the view that university is the silver bullet for everyone and everything. The revolution and need for change is long overdue. Education’s purpose is to unlock an individual’s potential so they can get the job and career that they crave. If it fails to do that then education itself has let them down. Today I have laid down a marker for change. A commitment to stand for the forgotten 50%.

We will be unstinting in our efforts to build a world-class further education system that delivers for the whole nation.

One that gives people meaningful careers that allow them to fully contribute to their community and serve as inspiration to their family,

One that works with business to promote innovation and deliver courses that will enable our country to thrive.

And one whose students can hold their heads up high in the sure knowledge that they are second to no-one.

As we emerge from Covid, further education will be the key that unlocks this country’s potential and that helps make post-Brexit Britain the triumph we all want, and the triumph our young people all deserve.

Thank you.