It’s time for FE to stop playing second fiddle

13 Sep 2019, 11:50

The FE and skills sector has for too long existed in the shadow of higher education, says Gavin Williamson, the new education secretary. He explains why he wants to bring it out into the light so that every student has the opportunity to benefit from the same quality of education he had

When I was appointed education secretary in July, one of the first things I did was take charge of the further education and skills brief, the first secretary of state at this department to do so.

I was a student at an FE college in Scarborough, so I know first-hand how the sector opens doors to every kind of career imaginable. I want young people to share the same self-belief that they can achieve whatever they like, no matter what course they take.

That’s why I fought so hard to make sure that this month’s bumper funding package for schools and colleges included £400 million of additional funding for providers of 16-19 education, plus £100 million for FE pensions.

It’s the single biggest annual increase for the sector since 2010, and includes £120 million to help to deliver more expensive but crucial subjects such as engineering.

This isn’t just a personal mission for me. It’s a practical one. For too long, technical and vocational education has played second fiddle to more traditional academic routes.

That’s outdated, short-sighted, and means we lag behind other advanced economies when it comes to developing a highly skilled and productive future workforce.

Contrary to long-held dogma, a purely academic education isn’t the right route for everyone. The country knows this. The people I grew up with in Yorkshire know this. My West Midlands constituents know this, and I’m certain that FE leaders and teachers know it.

This isn’t just a personal mission. It’s a practical one.

That’s why I’m so keen to throw my support behind vocational and technical alternatives such as T-levels. When they’re rolled out from next year, a single T-level will officially count for three of our world class A-levels in terms of UCAS points – solid proof that technical and academic educations finally have equitable status.

This government is also supporting thousands of apprenticeships. A few weeks ago I met with some of Royal Mail’s 460 apprentices in Leeds – people of all ages and backgrounds getting stuck into quality training programmes ranging from high-tech robotics to project management.

As with all apprenticeships, it’s a win-win situation: young people are priming themselves for brilliant, well-paid careers while helping our country’s companies build the skilled workforce we need for a productive modern economy.

None of these efforts would amount to anything, though, without the dedication and passion of this country’s FE workforce. I made it through my A-level in history thanks in large part to Scarborough Sixth Form College’s husband-wife dream team, Mr and Mrs Johnson. Today, similarly devoted teachers are tirelessly guiding young people through their post-16 education.

I’ve seen it myself. Over the past few weeks I’ve been up and down the country — to Leeds, Sheffield and Westminster Kingsway College in London, where I met Team UK before they headed to the Skills Olympics in Russia.

I was in the company of some of the most skilled young people in the world, like Tonicha Roberts, 22, whose specialist skill is chemical laboratory technology, and master carpenter Jack Goodrum. Each of those competitors is testament to the hard work and high-quality training offered daily by the FE workforce.

I want to do everything I can to support that workforce, which is why this month’s funding boost included £20 million to help recruit and retain teachers and leaders in the sector, and to ensure that people taking T-levels are getting the cream of the vocational teaching crop.

It’s an exciting time for FE. You have in me an education secretary who’s determined to put it centre stage, and give it all the support and credit it has so long deserved.

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