Gillian Keegan delivered her first speech to the FE sector in her new role as the education secretary at today’s Association of Colleges conference.
Predictably, Keegan, who was appointed three weeks ago, did not announce anything new ahead of tomorrow’s autumn statement from the chancellor, and she could not shed any further light on the Office for National Statistics’ review of college classification other than to say the government will work to manage any change “as smoothly as possible”.
But she did tell delegates of her desire to ensure apprenticeships, especially those at higher and degree level, are going to “enjoy more than just a moment in the sun” under hers and skills minister Robert Halfon’s leadership in the Department for Education.
Keegan then shared three things that she thinks are “gamechangers” for post-16 education:
- Local skills improvement plans ‘will work’
The Department for Education has set aside £20.9 million to create and implement local skills improvement plans in 38 areas over the next three years.
First proposed in the FE white paper, the plans aim to make colleges and training providers align the courses they offer to local employers’ needs. They are led by an employer representative body, mostly chambers of commerce, in each area.
Keegan said the local element of the plans are “crucial”.
“The plan brings together employers and further education colleges and universities and other providers to come up with skills priorities for a particular area. Skills businesses needs in Cumbria are not always going to be the same as they are in Kent. And we know collaboration is key and there are incredible examples of this underway.”
FE Week has however heard of tension in some LSIP areas in the early stages of the plans, and AoC chief executive David Hughes told Keegan after her speech that college leaders’ experience to date of working with the employer representative bodies is “varied”.
Keegan firmly told conference that the plans “have to work” and “will work”.
- Institutes of Technology
Keegan said the second gamechanger is Institutes of Technology (IoTs), which are collaborations between FE providers, universities and employers, and aim to deliver higher technical qualifications in areas like STEM and digital, as well as industries with skills shortages.
The education secretary said the first of these to open, since 2019, are “shaping the way we train people in critical areas such as zero carbon energy production, electric vehicles, and clean, sustainable manufacturing”.
Her mention of IoTs comes a week after Halfon suggested there are no plans for new “elite” technical colleges, as had been reported, and instead the government is banking on IoTs to help address the country’s skills gap.
The first 12 IoTs comprise more than 40 FE providers, 60 employers and 18 universities, backed by £170 million of government funding to provide industry-standard facilities.
A fresh wave of nine further IoTs, backed by a further £120 million, was announced by the DfE in December last year.
- Excellent teaching in FE
Keegan claimed that government has been increasing the level of investment in FE so that colleges can “get the staff they need”.
She reminded leaders of the £1.6 billion additional investment by 2024-25 promised at last year’s spending review, and highlighted the DfE’s new recruitment campaign to attract industry professionals in FE teaching.
But college leaders are still suffering from severe underfunding which is well below 2010 levels, combined with huge inflation and budgetary pressures which are preventing them from offering competitive salaries compared to industry.
Colleges are also battling to retain staff as most cannot offer the pay rises needed amid the cost of living crisis, which has led to the biggest wave of strike action colleges have ever seen this year.