Bridges are some of the great engineering wonders in our country. The Iron Bridge in Shropshire is the oldest cast iron crossing in the world, a marvel dating back to 1779. The Humber Bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge between 1981 and 1998. Indeed, in Lowestoft in my constituency work is well under way on the Gull Wing Bridge, which once completed will be the largest rolling bascule bridge in the world.
Why all this talk of bridges? Well, a bridge has the purpose of making something impassable passable. Whether it is fording a great river, traversing a mighty gorge or crossing a motorway. The bridge is the solution to the problem of navigating a gap we would otherwise struggle to cross.
Sitting on the green benches, we regularly hear about the skills gaps we face and how they are a major problem for our economy. It is a challenge which has spanned Conservative, Coalition and Labour governments. Last autumn, the ONS estimated there were almost 1.2 million job vacancies which went unfilled. While this is partly testament to the record low unemployment we now enjoy in this country, it means many employers cannot find the skilled people they need to fill posts.
While this problem has proved hard to overcome, the solution is staring us in the face. Our fantastic colleges and independent training providers, which serve communities the length and breadth of the country, are there to bridge skills gaps. The very purpose of further education is to provide younger and older people alike with the training they need to get on in the workplace.
I am proud to chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Further Education and Lifelong Learning and I am always astounded by the excellent work East Coast College does in my own constituency. But colleges and the wider FE sector could do so much more if they were given the means to fulfil their full potential.
Today, I joined a panel discussion in parliament to explore these issues in greater detail. Clearly, the issue of funding is high on the priority list for college principals, but there are non-monetary ways to help the sector too.
The Future Skills Coalition is a new partnership between some of the major players in the FE sector: the Association of Colleges, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers and City & Guilds. They have a clear sense of the priorities to tackle this problem: A right to lifelong learning; fair, accessible and effective funding; and a national strategy to support local, inclusive growth.
The Conservatives have laid strong foundations for this. Policymakers now understand and value the FE sector more. However, the autumn budget did not deliver a funding boost for colleges, despite a sizeable package for schools to deal with inflationary pressures. It was encouraging that the Chancellor announced a review of FE reform implementation by Sir Michael Barber, and it is very important that this is quickly followed by a positive statement on revenue funding, so that colleges’ concerns that Whitehall does not understand their worth are allayed.
I am hopeful the Chancellor will make colleges and the FE sector the keystone of his plans to boost growth and increase productivity in his spring statement on 15 March. Jeremy Hunt recognises the issue but is in the unenviable position of having to make tough decisions for the sake of our future prosperity. I urge the Treasury to consider that the return on investment for any additional funding for colleges will be vast both economically and socially, as the lives of our constituents are forever improved by access to education and training.
A gap is a problem which invites ingenuity to bridge. With the blueprint already laid out by our colleges, I am sure this is not a bridge too far for the Chancellor.