Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson's address to 2021 Annual Conference

By Gavin Williamson MP on

Good morning. I’d like to thank you for including me among your speakers today. You could not have picked more important issues to discuss or a more important time to discuss them.

The Covid pandemic has been brutal, but it has also seen great innovation and resourcefulness, as we have all had to change the way we live and learn as well as work.

So I would like to begin by thanking you and congratulating all Association of Colleges’ members, for your magnificent response.

I know the challenges it has placed on college leaders and their teams, the extra work, the added pressure, none of this has gone unnoticed.

Already we are seeing the beginnings of a post-Covid legacy which will be of lasting benefit.

I hear, for example, that the Heart of Worcestershire, Grimsby Institute and Dudley College have between them produced more than 400 hours of digital content for a range of subjects which is being shared via our Get Help with Remote Education site. While Weston College and  Gateshead College have teamed up to deliver over 370 wellbeing sessions and 13 new health and wellbeing video toolkits.

By coming together to tackle our shared challenges, we are going to emerge stronger and your resilience is going to help the recovery effort in so many ways.

Further education is going to be vital to helping this country grow economically and improving our productivity after this pandemic.

I can say without any hesitation that the future is further education.

I’m sure that my passion for further education is not news to any of you. If there is ever an opportunity to bang the drum for this sector, I am there.

I make no apologies for this. It’s something I believe with a total conviction, and Covid has only confirmed that belief about how important all of you are.

We are going to continue our great rebalancing between higher and further education, which began at the last Spending Review and which we have now continued in the White Paper, Skills for Jobs.

This will make going to college, or taking an apprenticeship, as compelling an option as studying for a degree at university.

The development of technical skills, the greater embedding of digital skills, the ability to retrain or upskill at any time – all these have never been more important than they are now, than they are today.

We need to get people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic back into work as quickly as possible.

Your colleges are poised to offer the kind of flexible, practical training that leads directly to high-quality, skilled jobs, which is exactly what this country needs.

Because colleges deliver the skills that deliver the jobs that deliver the greater productivity.

But we need you to continue to approach this proactively and our Skills for Jobs White Paper – developed in partnership with so many of you - sets out how we see you doing exactly this.

I want the White Paper to reshape the whole system of learning and acquiring skills in this country.

And it is going to do this by putting employers firmly at the centre of a local skills systems, firmly at the heart of our colleges, working together with you, our colleges, and other local partners to shape technical skills provision, so that local economies thrive and local businesses benefit.

We know that education and training must develop hand-in-hand with business partners if we are ever going to beat our chronic skills shortages.

So we need to think local. We need local solutions for local skills needs. We need you to work with local businesses and employers so that the courses you offer are those that are likely to lead to jobs.

There will be more information coming soon on the year-long Strategic Development Fund pilot that we are going to be launching.

This £65 million fund will support colleges as they reshape what they do, for example by piloting the changes we expect to see in the local skills improvement plans or setting up business centres.

We are confident that once it’s open there will be plenty of strong proposals from colleges right across the country.

We will also move to a more coherent, simpler funding model that we are going to test with the sector and we will be consulting on this later in the spring.

The consultation will looking for a simpler model with greater flexibility for providers and more accountability. This will in turn lead to a stronger focus on outcomes and will allow providers to achieve more.

It is part of our commitment that wherever people live or whatever their background, they can get the skills they need to get a fulfilling and satisfying job.

Through the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, we will help people train and retrain– at any stage in their lives.

This will be achieved through our new flexible skills bootcamps, kickstarting the expansion of higher technical education, and getting the Lifelong Loan Entitlement up and running from 2025.

The Lifetime Skills Guarantee will also include our new Level 3 offer for adults, which is backed by new money from the National Skills Fund and will enable tens of thousands of adults to benefit from hundreds of free qualifications from April.

Colleges will be absolutely key in delivering this new offer and ensuring adults across the country can develop the skills they need to get ahead in the labour market. I want to thank you for all the hard work you’ve already put in to scale up this offer ahead of April.

I strongly encourage you to take up this Level 3 entitlement offer and thank those who’ve already embraced it.

I would now like to look at a number of the other specific measures that are going to help our recovery.

Covid has made existing disadvantage more acute, whether that is in a town that has been hard hit by redundancies, or in communities where people were already facing financial hardship.

And sadly the young are often the first to suffer. The latest data shows us that young people are more likely to work in sectors that have been shut down by Covid. By last autumn, those in the 16–25 age group were twice as likely as older employees to have lost their job, and most of them had seen earnings fall.

To navigate the worst of the pandemic and steer a course to recovery, the Government is delivering its Plan for Jobs. This includes a number of programmes to address the long-term impact of Covid, such as the catch-up premium and the Skills Recovery Package.  

In July 2020, we announced the additional investment for a reformed and expanded traineeship programme to help young people into work. 

This will make an additional 30,000 traineeship places available this year.

I know your members have already worked with us on providing traineeships so you’ll be familiar with the benefits and positive impact that these can have.

We are also making more funding available to existing traineeship providers and have awarded nearly £65 million in new contracts with providers for traineeships for those aged 19-24 across England.

As we celebrate the start of National Apprenticeship Week I am delighted to tell you that as of today, more than 20,000 applications have been submitted from employers for a cash boost of up to £2,000 to hire apprentices as new employees.

Businesses know when they’re on to a good deal and there is no clearer proof of the value apprenticeships can bring.  

Take Emilia Reyes Pabon, for example. She’s an apprentice technician scientist at Oxford University who is supporting production of the Covid-19 vaccine. While we have all been focusing on the end product it has been Emilia, and others like her, who are making sure the lab equipment is maintained, tested and cleaned correctly.

Or Jack Day, Christopher Robinson and Christopher Young. They are advanced engineering apprentices at the Science and Technology Facilities Council. They helped to produce 20 years’ worth of mechanical ventilators in just 12 weeks.  

These young people are showing us the future and really leading by example.

I spoke earlier of how we are going to reset our thinking for a post-Covid world and another way we are going to build back better is by building back greener.

The Green Jobs Taskforce is part of the Government’s ambitious plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. We need to make sure that we have the skills for a greener economy, such as in offshore wind and supporting workers in high carbon sectors, like oil and gas, to retrain in green technologies. The Taskforce will report next year on its findings.

Future generations will judge us on how we build back after the pandemic. They will judge us on how we came together to work for each other and the country. They will judge us for our vision and our ambition, is it bold enough, are we looking far enough ahead?

I am confident that the White Paper will be our first step, so that those who come after will say we did what was needed, what we had to do to make sure that we build back better for future generations and to get it right.

Thank you for everything you have done and everything you will continue to do for future generations

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