The lack of a long-term funding settlement for FE did not hamper the Department for Education’s white paper in terms of its boldness or scale of investment, the skills minister has said.
Speaking to FE Week following the launch of the white paper on Thursday, Gillian Keegan insisted there is an “awful lot to do” with the reforms put forward and an “awful lot to prove” and she wouldn’t “necessarily” want anything more to deliver.
In the Q&A she tackled questions about whether the Treasury’s switch from a multi-year to a one-year spending review had put a stop to “revolutionary” reforms and greater funding, as sector leaders have suggested. And she gave her opinion on why this attempt at embedding employers at the heart of FE will succeed where many past attempts had failed.
Q: Did the lack of a three-year spending-review hamper the white paper in terms of speed of reform and/or boldness?
A: “No, it didn’t. We have also had this focus on a need to recover as a result of coronavirus. There is a big recognition that skills are a key part to drive that recovery.
“Obviously having a three-year settlement is great because it gives visibility, it gives that long-term money, but a lot of the things we wanted to do we have either already been working on, such as T Levels, Institutes of Technology, the capital investment etc, but I think even if you look at what we have implemented and what we’re going to implement this year, such as the level 3 entitlement, the basic digital skills, the bootcamps, we have got the money to get going with all of those things.
“We have got a lot of things we need to do.”
Q: So even if there was a longer-term funding settlement for FE, the white paper wouldn’t have seen any further new policies or investment?
A: “The fact is, I don’t know. But I do know that trying to deliver a flexible, more modular approach with the lifelong loan entitlement, a level 3 entitlement, bootcamps, Institutes of Technology and T Levels, that is a massive programme in itself.
“To set ourselves the objective of closing the skills gap and deliver to business what they need, I can’t think of anything more ambitious, to be honest. I don’t know what else I would add to that.
“The reality is, we have got an awful lot to do and an awful lot to prove.
“The most important thing for me is to be able to deliver some of this stuff and prove we are capable of stepping up to this massive challenge.
“I feel there is a lot to deliver. Would I want more to deliver? Not necessarily. Sometimes there is a case of, well, if you argue for more stuff but you can’t spend it because you can’t actually deliver it, well, then that doesn’t always end well.
“I feel we have got the right type of investment to invest in some of the priorities, and I don’t see that holding us back at all.”
Q: In your opinion, what is the biggest new reform in the white paper that will affect the sector?
A: “I think it’s really embedding employers at the heart of the system. But it’s more than that, it’s turning those words into actions and I think what’s different is the fact that we’ve already started to build our confidence in this area with the apprenticeship standards and the work we’ve done with about 3,000 employers across the country and the development of T Levels which we’ve done with 250 leading employers.
“That has given us confidence to really embed the employers into our qualifications and our standards. And when you do that, we make sure that what people are studying is what employers want, which is what’s going to get them a job. It is that big a difference.”
Q: Why will this latest attempt to place employers at the centre of the FE system work where so many previous attempts have failed; and will a one-off £65 million strategic development fund make for lasting improvements?
A: “That’s a good question and it is the one we should always ask ourselves. The first thing I would say… I haven’t worked in the sector for a long time but I haven’t seen qualifications built with the DfE, the sector and with employers collaboratively before. I think certainly on the ones I’ve done, the employers were not at the heart of building those qualifications and making sure that they set out what were the knowledge, skills, behaviours and qualifications, and what they needed to do for the 21st-century work environment.
“We’ve got more in college estates, we’ve got more in strategic development, we’ve got business centres, we’ve got additional capital coming forward, and we’ve got the level 3 entitlement, obviously.
“I mean, some of it has been announced before. I don’t know why people get so obsessed about it being announced before ̶ it’s all part of the same strategy, some of which we’ve been working on to be able to start to get people ready to deliver it. But it’s all part of the same strategy, which is closing the skills gap, where we put employers at the centre of our qualifications and working with FE colleges and local skills improvement plans to basically make sure that we bring the system together to deliver it.
“I think the other thing that’s different now is timing. Timing is everything in being able to implement successfully. And what you’ve got now is employers need to grow, you know, they’ve got skills gaps, the skills gaps are global, with a lot of competition for talent. We’ve also had Covid and there’s going to be a recovery. Skills are going to have to power that. We’ve got Brexit. We will come together at a time when we have proven to ourselves that we can successfully implement employers into qualifications and into apprenticeship standards. Having all those together is what makes it different this time.”
Q: The white paper has been a year in the making and builds on various ongoing reform programmes. How would you rate the job that Keith Smith, your director of post-16 strategy who led on the white paper, has done?
A: “Fantastic. He has been involved for less than one year and he was dealing with the apprenticeship reforms before.
“There is an awful lot of work that has been done. To be able to land something that has been so universally welcomed as good news is fantastic. It was a relatively small team who have been working very hard to get this to the point that it is at. I think they have done an absolutely brilliant job.”