Two strong appointments with Halfon and Wolf – but still no FE minister

30 Jan 2020, 21:42

This week two powerful advocates of the further education sector were appointed to influential roles within Whitehall.

On Monday, the former skills minister and Conservative MP Robert Halfon was reappointed to chair the education select committee.

Halfon is widely and rightly regarded as having done a good job in the chair for the past two and a half years, scrutinising the work of government and education policy.

So it was not surprising when he was re-elected without any opposition.

When we caught up with Halfon later this week, he said that the extra FE funding in the Conservative manifesto (£1.8 billion for capital and £3 billion for a skills fund) was “an important step forward” but “I’ll always advocate for more, especially on FE because that has always been underfunded”.

Nothing to disagree with there!

And today we reported that Baroness Alison Wolf has been appointed to work three days per week within the Number 10 policy unit, advising the Prime Minister on all things skills and apprenticeships.

Wolf has already played an important part in influencing government policy, including her report in 2011 into 14-19 vocational education and being an official panel member on both the 2017 Sainsbury and 2019 Augar Reviews.

In July last year, after the Augar Review was published, Wolf writing for the ConservativeHome website said: “the review panel discovered that technical and further education were in even worse shape than any of us had realised”…”its funding has been devastated”.

She went on to compare the plight of FE to the relatively well funded higher education sector, and said the “imbalance looks even harder to justify in the light of regional inequalities”.

The need to invest in further education, particularly to tackle “regional inequalities”, will be playing well in Number 10, as Boris Johnson and his policy adviser Dominic Cummings look for ways to cement constituency gains in the areas that switched from red to blue at the last election.

Both appointments are good news for FE at a time when the Chancellor is likely to make significant spending commitments to match the pledges in the manifesto.

But it should not go unnoticed that the FE and skills sector has no dedicated minister, following the departure of Anne Milton last July.

The Secretary of State appointed at the time, Gavin Williamson, has taken the reins, claiming he wanted the gig for himself.

And to give him credit, the FE investment commitments in the subsequent manifesto are substantial and to be applauded.

But I remain unconvinced the lack of an FE and skills minister is wise in the longer term.

There is much work to be done, many new policies to introduce and the sector deserves and should demand the return of a dedicated minister in any forthcoming reshuffle.

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