Government to reveal plans this autumn to create an employer led ‘German-style’ FE system

Education secretary Gavin Williamson will today pledge that the upcoming White Paper for further education will lead to a reformed “world-class, German-style” system.

In a speech hosted by the Social Market Foundation, Williamson will say that “for decades, we have failed to give FE the investment it deserves” as he “tears up” the symbolic target of sending 50 per cent of young people to university.

He believes there should be fewer people going into higher education as it can “all too often” end with graduates “not having the skills they need to find meaningful work”, and instead the country should see FE and apprenticeships as equally valid routes to “productive” employment.

Williamson will reiterate the government’s ambition to move Britain to a German-style technical education system, after he launched a target at the Conservative Party conference last September to overtake the country in this area over the next 10 years.

His commitment comes ahead of the publication of a White Paper this autumn which will set out plans for “long-term” change in FE.

Williamson will say: “For decades, we have failed to give further education the investment it deserves. Our universities have an important role to play in our economy, society and culture, but there are limits to what we can achieve by sending ever more people into higher education, which is not always what the individual and nation needs. 

“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.

“As we emerge from Covid-19, further education will be the key that unlocks this country’s potential and that will help make post-Brexit Britain the triumph we all want. I want everyone to feel the same burning pride for our colleges and the people who study there, in the way we do for our great universities and schools.”

While details of the White Paper are largely unknown, FE Week understands one major change being considered is to bring colleges in England back into public ownership.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said his membership body is “not sure why the education secretary feels it necessary to denigrate the value of higher education in setting out his ambition for further education”.

“Both sectors are of vital importance to our young people and our economy and already provide a variety of pathways to skills and careers.”

Barton added that he hopes the education secretary’s “warm words” about the importance of FE are “backed up with adequate funding”.

Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said today’s speech “isn’t about reducing the power and mission of universities, but recognising and supporting the power and mission of colleges alongside universities to meet the education, skills and training needs of every adult across their lives”.

“Our current system simply does not support the half of adults who don’t get the chance to study at higher levels,” he added.

“In fact it relegates them to second class citizens, without the investment and the opportunities to improve their life chances.”

During his speech today, the education secretary is expected to explain that while “many” of the skills that employers are demanding require intermediate or higher technical qualifications – only 10 per cent of all adults aged 18 to 65 actually hold higher technical qualifications as their highest qualification in the UK.

That’s compared to around 20 per cent of adults in Germany and as much as 34 per cent in Canada. And five years after completion, the average higher technical apprentice will also earn more than the average graduate.

James Kirkup, Social Market Foundation director, who will discuss Williamson’s plans with him during today’s broadcast, said: “Socially, too much of our national conversation is based on the implicit judgement that people who don’t go to university aren’t worth as much as those who do. Economically, decades of underperformance on technical education and training, for young people and adults alike, has held back growth and productivity.   

“More support for further and technical education, and more respect for the people who benefit from it, would make Britain happier and richer.”

Today’s speech comes a day after chancellor Rishi Sunak announced billions of pounds of support for skills and apprenticeships to combat unemployment post-Covid-19 (read what was promised for FE here).

You can watch Williamson’s speech here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eZnr5tqRkI.