Colleges and further education are central to the nation's recovery

By Gavin Williamson MP on

This week is Colleges week – a celebration of the huge contribution that our colleges make to society, our economy and to individuals across the country, transforming lives and creating opportunities. It was great to start the week with a visit to City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College on Monday, where I was able to speak to staff and students about digital skills and how the college is preparing students for their future careers. This certainly isn’t the first time that I, as a former college boy, have spoken about how valuable our colleges are. When I came into post back in July last year, I made it my personal mission to champion further education and give it the recognition it deserves.

A lot has changed since we last celebrated Colleges Week one year ago – but one thing that has remained is the role of colleges as the beating heart of communities. In recent months this has become more apparent than ever before. Throughout this pandemic that we have faced and which has devastated so much, the FE sector has shone through. You have used your expertise, ingenuity and creativity to not only deliver excellent online learning and keep the show on the road, but you have gone above and beyond to support your local communities. From delivering food parcels to vulnerable people to opening up your buildings for vital training for extra NHS frontline staff, you have responded to the challenges that Covid-19 has thrown up with huge inspiration and care. 

This was all brought to life for me when I took part in a virtual visit to Exeter College in June and was hugely uplifted by the passion and enthusiasm of students there, who had been able to continue their training thanks to the college’s swift adoption of online learning and teaching. I want to put employers, like those SMEs that responded to AoC’s survey, at the heart of the system so that people get the right training for them and businesses have the skills they need to grow. That is why we will be publishing an exciting and bold white paper this autumn to drive forward real change, building on the great progress that has already been made by the sector with new employer led T Levels, Institutes of Technology and high quality apprenticeships. 

We are also, as the Prime Minister set out last month, addressing the need for action on adult education – moving to a flexible system that will make it easier for people of all ages to access training and giving FE colleges access to the main student finance system for those courses that employers need the skills in. And as part of our Lifetime Skills Guarantee, from next April we will fund Level 3 courses for adults, who don’t have A levels or equivalent, all of which teach skills that are valued by employers.

The Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills Gillian Keegan has been visiting colleges, both virtually and where possible in person, regularly throughout the pandemic and has been blown away by the professionalism, care and real positivity that runs through all of the work that you do. I know that none of this was easy, and there continue to be very real challenges. It is thanks to the hard work and commitment of all of those teaching and working in colleges that thousands of learners continue to receive absolutely vital training and support. And let me underline just how vital that training is. Now more than ever we need to be providing the skills and qualifications that will help get people into good jobs and provide the talent that our businesses and economy needs to grow, come back stronger and build back better.

There is a shortage of so many crucial skills in this country – with productivity only 4% higher than the level it was in 2008 and sadly these skills gaps have only been intensified by the impact Covid-19 has had on our economy. I can only agree with David Hughes when he says that this economic recovery must be skills led - with training and retraining front and centre so that we can help people keep their jobs or apply for new ones and make sure that businesses have the skills that they need. Those in any doubt about this need look no further than the survey of SMEs which was released by AoC last week.

The fact that seven in 10 SMEs believe colleges are important to business for training and retraining staff and 44% believe colleges are best placed to skill their future workforce, compared to 22% for universities and 21% for schools, shows just how essential it is to invest in skills to give businesses the pipeline of talent that they so desperately need. 

The survey’s findings also highlight the need to boost adult education and help people to retrain and reskill. The fact that 54% of businesses felt they are going to need to train their workforce to adapt as a result of Covid-19 is a challenge to government that we are already working to meet and deliver on. Our £2.5 billion National Skills Fund is focused on helping to get people working again and giving those in work the chance to re-skill or train for better paid jobs and we have just expanded The Skills Toolkit, which was launched earlier this year and provides free online training to help people boost their digital and numeracy skills. On top of this, the Chancellor’s unprecedented plan for jobs will make sure both young people and adults can start apprenticeships – with financial incentives for employers who offer them, and just last month we announced an £8m expansion of digital bootcamps in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Liverpool City Region – led by local employers and focused on helping boost tech and digital skills which are playing a greater part in all our lives. 

I know that it has been a challenging year and I would like to express my huge thanks to you all for how you have responded. As we chart our course to recovery as a nation I am crystal clear that colleges and further education are absolutely central to this and I look forward to working with you all on the journey ahead. 

Gavin Williamson is the Secretary of State for Education and MP for South Staffordshire