AoC Conference: Milton pleas for renewed ‘partnership’ with colleges

Anne Milton wants a refreshed “partnership” between FE and the government to help with the technical education reforms.

The skills and apprenticeships minister used her speech at this year’s Association of Colleges conference to plea with sector leaders for closer collaboration after going through past turbulent years that have “put too much distance between us”.

“I know that words like ‘partnership’ and ‘working together’ come with historical baggage,” she told delegates. “There have been times in the past when our partnerships have been tested. 

“But as we face new challenges, the way in which we work together will also need to change.”

Ms Milton insisted that she was not coming with a “blueprint” for how the partnership between FE and government should work from now on, but spoke of three “emerging themes”.

Together, we have a determination to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that lie ahead

The first of those was “support: from government, for the sector”. 

“We are, and will be, asking a lot of you over the next few years. It is only right to make sure that you can get the support that you need,” the minister said.

“Wherever we can, we want to deliver that support by harnessing the capacity within the sector.  Improvement through collaboration, rather than competition alone. That’s what we are doing with the National Leaders programme, and through the new Strategic College Improvement Fund.  

“Where that capacity for support does not already exist within the sector, or needs to be strengthened, we will invest, strategically, in its development.”

Second, she said she wants government to play “an active role”, but was clear that she does not think those in power “always knows best” or can do it on their own.

“Just as an active role for government is central to our approach on industrial strategy, we need to adopt the same mindset when thinking about how we achieve the world class FE provision. ‘By the sector, for the sector’ is not, on its own, always the best response to many of the biggest challenges we face together.

“There are some issues where government has a unique set of levers and resources that can help find solutions to shared problems.”

You want more money, everyone wants more money and I will bang the drum for you 

And thirdly, Ms Milton asked for “whole system co-ordination”.

“We need a better co-ordinated approach, both within government, and between the government and the sector,” she said. “I am looking to the new College Improvement Board, chaired by the FE Commissioner [Richard Atkins] to help deliver that in strengthening quality, for example. 

“We need to ensure that targeted support for quality improvement works in tandem with wider support for FE teachers and leaders. We need to harness the insights from inspection by Ofsted to help identify improvement needs.

“We need to reform the accountability system to make it work better. And we need to ensure that our ambition is matched by providers who are financially resilient.”

The minister wrapped up her speech by giving a heartfelt message of optimism for the times ahead for FE.

“Partnership is a much over-used word. But if meant, if felt by both sides, if it is meaningful, genuine and balanced, it does work.

“This is a hugely exciting and challenging time for colleges and for FE, as it is for government. You want more money and I will always lobby for that. 

“What I know is that together, we have a shared ambition for all of our learners, for all of our communities and for our country. 

“Together, we have a determination to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that lie ahead. Together I know we can make this happen.”

FE Week is the premier media partner at this year’s AoC Conference. You can follow live coverage of the event by following @feweek on Twitter and using #AoCConf.

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