Dear Gavin’s how to navigate FE

As the new education secretary takes personal charge of the FE brief, former government adviser Tom Bewick offers advice

Tom Bewick

Gavin Williamson, the new education secretary, is to take personal responsibility for the FE and skills brief

Secretary of state, congratulations and welcome to your new role. Just like the previous politicians in the role, you will no doubt be feeling over the moon, like you’ve landed the best job in government. On this latter point, please be aware that for many professionals working in the sector, they have heard it all before. It’s best to think of something more original to say for when you first hit the speaker circuit.

Be aware that there is some consternation out there that the former minister of state position dedicated to skills and apprenticeships has been abolished. You might want to focus some of your initial public appearances on reassuring the FE and college sector, in particular, that it is not going to miss out to the superior lobbying forces of the schools and university system.

It is a great privilege to be made responsible for nearly 4 million learners in England’s tertiary education system and to be able to help young people and adults realise their full potential through apprenticeships. You may or may not be aware, but the average tenure in the role of skills minister is about 15 months – one month below the average length of time that Premier League football managers currently spend leading their professional clubs.

Background: Milton resignation: Sector pays tribute to minister

News: Williamson personally takes on skills remit

Opinion: Gavin Williamson will lead on FE – but is it good news?

This suggests that you perhaps have no time to waste. But, on the other hand, coming into the job with too much excitement and hyperactivity could spell the end of your ministerial career. England has one of the most centralised skills systems in the world. What amounts to a complex education and training sector has been largely ruled by central diktat for the best part of three decades. David Blunkett, a former secretary of state, once described the approach to policy and funding in skills as being like a “Soviet warehousing operation”. There has certainly been a lot of chopping and changing. And many of the targets dished out on high have been missed, just like those old Russian tractor factories that regularly failed the harvest.

Getting to grips with FE 

With your ministerial hands now firmly on the levers of power, this can seem, at first, quite seductive. Advised by the eloquent Sir Humphrey, you will be told that you can abolish this quango and that quango, change these funding rules, introduce new targets or rebrand and refresh the whole of FE and apprenticeships if you so wish. 

In the skills part of your brief, your Red Boxes will be full of submissions from the heads of statutory bodies that you are now responsible for: the ESFA (Education and Skills Funding Agency), the IfATE (Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education) and Ofqual. Indeed, if you haven’t been given your alphabet spaghetti guide to Skills World by your well-trained private office, then make sure you ask for one. Some of the acronyms you will encounter over the next few weeks are truly mind-boggling. Take my trade association: FAB. No, we are nothing to do with Thunderbirds’ characters (and please don’t use this joke at our annual conference, it was done last year by your predecessor). My job is to represent the country’s 116 regulated awarding bodies that deliver thousands of life-changing credentials, from GCSEs to BTECs, to plumbing and hairdressing qualifications. 

In plain English, this means that our modern economy would simply grind to halt without the dedication and commitment of the people and organisations that make up the FE sector.

You are going to receive lots of expert advice. Be on your guard against some of the nonsense you may be told about there being too many qualifications. This is lazy intellectual thinking by a handful of advisers who have probably known only A levels, university degrees and the civil service entrance exams as examples of the “successful” qualifications pathway that they pursued after leaving school. 

The truth is that the real world is far more complex. There is a wide range of vocational qualifications because there are literally thousands of occupations. As much as they may try in Sanctuary Buildings, it is just not possible to boil everything down to a binary choice of A levels or T levels for your average 16-year-olds to take. Let’s face it, in a digital, multi-platform, consumer age, when did you last feel satisfied with only two television channels to choose from?

The road to T levels

As you will soon discover, the specialist education press is eagle-eyed, always watching and reporting on what is really going on. When talking to the media, try to refrain from calling vocational qualifications “Mickey Mouse”, because it actually only serves to underline the academic snobbery that successive governments have said they are against. Indeed, publicly trashing these qualifications only serves in the end to undervalue the efforts of teachers and learners. You are basically telling them they are worthless. England’s awarding bodies export more qualifications overseas than any other nation on Earth. The industry is world-class. So taking to the airwaves to denounce the hard work of learners is not exactly the best way of helping, post-Brexit, to boost our international trade.

From the perspective of many in FE, one of the biggest challenges on the near horizon is the future of below level 3 qualifications. You will need to decide which of these vocational qualifications to keep eligible for public support from approximately 12,000 in circulation now. 

Previous ministers have already done some of the heavy lifting for you, since nearly two-fifths of these qualifications have not certificated since 2015, suggesting the market no longer demands them. What you should be on your guard against, however, are well-meaning civil servants advising you to knock out highly valued qualifications, like Applied Generals and some BTECS, which have been serving employers and learners very well for generations.

You can’t make a new product like T levels successful just because you take out the competition. In the real world, consumers like diversity and choice. If T levels really are the new "gold standard" in English technical education then colleges will have no problems convincing local employers to offer superb industry placements; or finding students to fill their rolls. I would politely suggest that pursuing the current strategy of T levels as if they are "doomed to succeed" is not going to be a vote winner on the doorsteps.

Finally, if you are planning to kick-back in Tuscany over the recess, here are my five killer facts for you to consider. They may just help you to hit the ground running:  

  • The UK is the fifth-largest economy in the world, yet we rank 23rd in the Human Capital Index, compiled by the influential World Economic Forum. So, the key to our success as a nation lies in better skills.
  • Around £20 billion is spent by your department on post-18 tertiary education in England each year. Some 90 per cent of this funding is spent on full-time 18- to 24-year-old-students in higher education. This massive financial imbalance has led to a 16 per cent cut in real terms for FE students since 2010 and a 45 per cent real-terms cut for adult community learning. It’s time to reverse this situation. Parity of esteem between the academic and the vocational is a pipe dream without parity of resource.
  • Almost 40 per cent of young people by the age of 25 have not moved beyond a level 2 (GCSE) qualification: this has resulted in stalling social mobility and whole communities feeling left behind. You could go down in history as the first minister to introduce a fully funded, all-age learning entitlement to level 3.
  • Not a single quango that was operating in the skills arena a decade ago is in existence today. Perhaps go easy, therefore, on any major structural reforms. Leading systems like Germany and Switzerland have stuck with the same vocational institutions for more than 45 years. Better to reform from within.
  • There are currently 18 separate bodies involved in inspecting the quality of apprenticeships. In practice, this means that no one is really responsible to you or the taxpayer for quality assurance. This urgently needs your attention, along with reforms to the levy, to safeguard the integrity of the wider apprenticeship reforms.

I very much look forward, with some of my members, to meeting you soon. Good luck.

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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