When I arrived for my first day at college back in 1992, the world was a different place. Leeds United had just won the First Division - the precursor to today’s Premier League. Snap! were top of the charts, and the Channel Tunnel was still under construction. Lots has changed since then, but one thing, unfortunately, has remained the same – and that’s our failure to give our further education (FE) providers the recognition they deserve.
Back then, as now, technical and vocational education was snobbishly considered the poor relation of more traditional academic routes. Over those years FE has become home to the “forgotten 50 percent” – the half of the British population who, for whatever reason, don’t go into higher education, and who are overlooked because of it.
I’ve made it one of my personal missions to change that. It’s why I’m the first education secretary to take personal charge of the FE and skills brief, and it’s why I fought so hard to make sure our bumper funding package for schools and colleges, announced in August, included £400 million of additional funding for providers of 16-19 education. That includes £120 million to help deliver crucial but expensive subjects, such as engineering, plus another £100 million for FE pensions. And, critically, it includes a significant boost in our spending on workforce development – recognising the vital importance of teachers and leaders who work in the FE sector.
This isn’t a case of following my heart over my head. In today’s modern economy, it makes total sense to elevate technical and vocational education, and make sure both no longer play second fiddle to more traditional academic routes.
The stats don’t lie: when it comes to productivity, we’re way behind countries like Germany and Japan. We won’t catch up with those countries unless we develop our own highly-skilled workforce. And where do you develop those skills?
You develop them at Kendal College which I visited in September, down the road from where my wife Joanne studied at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside. And at Dudley College of Technology, where I had a go at welding in the college’s state-of-the-art virtual reality welding bay.
Of course, you’ve heard all this rhetoric before – promises from countless education ministers to give the sector the love it deserves. But I’ve done everything I can during my first few months to match my words with action.
I’ve thrown my weight behind vocational and technical alternatives, such as T Levels. They’re the new gold standard in technical education, and when they’re rolled out in 2020, a single T Level will officially count for three of our world class A Levels in terms of UCAS points—finally giving the two different educational paths equal status. If anything, some T Level students will have an edge over their A Level companions: they’ll get the benefits of a 45-day industry placement, during which time they can develop their skills in the workplace.
On top of that, the government is supporting thousands of different high-quality apprenticeships across the country. Robotics, accountancy, project management – there’s something for everyone, and each apprenticeship gives young people tangible skills, teeing them up for brilliant, well-paid careers.
To show just how ambitious I am, I’ve set a goal to overtake Germany in the provision of technical education by 2029. That includes offering young people the opportunity to develop their skills all the way up to university level. That’s why this month I announced an extra £120 million to open eight new Institutes of Technology across the country. These high-level collaborations between colleges, universities and businesses offer young people the chance to stretch their technical education all the way to Level 4 or 5. With that extra money, we’re pledging an Institute of Technology in every major city across the country.
Colleges and training providers aren’t just buildings, of course. Their value and success is entirely dependent on the people who work in them – our amazing FE teachers, leaders and other education professionals, who deliver high-quality technical, vocational and academic programmes, day in, day out. Those committed professionals don’t just carefully guide young people onto the next stages of their life by sharing their expertise, knowledge and experience; they’re central to the local community, giving people of all ages and levels the chance to develop new skills and progress on their own life journeys.
I’ve met so many remarkable individuals working across the FE sector over the past few months—in Leeds, in Sheffield and others—and I want to invest in those people the way we’ve invested in T Levels, apprenticeships and beyond. That’s why our funding boost includes £20 million to help recruit, retain and develop the best FE teachers and leaders our country has to offer.
It’s been over 25 years since I left college – painful as that is for me to admit. Hopefully when someone looks back in another quarter of a century, further education will finally have been given the recognition and status it deserves.