Next year will be a year of great opportunity for the further education sector, the apprenticeships and skills minister has said.
Speaking to Tes in the last of this year's #AskTheMinister video interviews, Gillian Keegan said she hoped the sector would "step up" to what 2021 had to offer.
Looking back at her first year in post, she said she was proud to be first former apprentice in the job and she “passionately believes in the sector”.
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The coronavirus hit only a few weeks after she took up post, and so she said one of her regrets for 2020 was that she had not done more face-to-face college visits in the first six weeks of her tenure.
“I love the virtual visits but what you get when you go to a college is the enthusiasm of students," she said. "The other thing I wish we would have done differently, which is not something we could have done last year, but I really feel because the pandemic has accelerated some trends, every time I look at what we are doing with the White Paper and reforming technical education, I just think, ‘Why didn’t we do this earlier?'
"There is nothing that would have stopped us getting on this journey earlier. What that means is we need to get on with it really quickly now."
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Ms Keegan said she believes colleges are safe for staff and students and there have been “relatively few cases” of Covid-19 in most institutions. She added that the news announced earlier this week that mass testing would be available to colleges after Christmas would be a “game-changer” and a “great comfort” to students, staff and parents.
She told Tes that the government had done a great deal to support colleges in dealing with the financial impact of the coronavirus, introducing flexibilities and ensuring that basic income from the Department for Education remained at the same level. “Ultimately, we are there to stand behind colleges,” she said, adding that she believed the government had “the right balance there”.
The delayed White Paper was is planned for “the earlier part of next year, definitely”, the minister told Tes.
Looking ahead to next year, Ms Keegan said: “There is a lot more to be hopeful about." She added the vaccine and mass testing would allow the sector to get back to normal. “I think this is going to be an amazing year for the sector. We have a massive opportunity.”
FE was “the key component for rebuilding the economy”, she said. “My hope is that the sector steps up to this opportunity, that it sees it as an opportunity. I am very hopeful for 2021, I’m looking forward to the White Paper, I’m looking forward to the spotlight coming on our sector, and I am looking forward to our sector exceeding expectations”.