Gavin Williamson will lead on FE - but is it good news?

FE deserves its seat at the cabinet table - but will this translate into much-needed funding, asks Julia Belgutay

What does Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, taking the lead on FE mean for the sector?

It took almost exactly six days from new prime minister, Boris Johnson, assuming office to the announcement that Gavin Williamson, newly appointed education secretary, would take direct responsibility for the apprenticeships and skills brief.

Once Number 10 had announced that there would only be two minister of state posts in the Department for Education – Nick Gibb, responsible for schools, and Jo Johnson, returning to his post as universities minister – it was clear that change was afoot for further education.


Background: Williamson to personally take on skills remit

More on this: FE sector reacts to Williamson being given skills remit

Quick read: Six facts about new children’s minister Kemi Badenoch


Is FE a government priority?

Now, after much speculation, we know. Williamson will be in charge of the brief directly, supported by new children’s minister and former FE student and apprentice Kemi Badenoch. At first glance, this might seem like good news.

The government insists that the move is down to the new prime minister viewing FE and skills as a “priority” – after all, he has said so more than once since taking office. The Association of Colleges, for example, welcomed the move: “We are taking this as a very positive sign that the words of support will soon be followed by new and significant investment in policy, relationships and funding of colleges.”

Williamson being directly in charge of FE means the sector gets a full seat at the cabinet table – unlike universities, with Jo Johnson able to attend cabinet but not as a full member. One would also hope that it will mean responsibility for FE in the most literal sense – that Williamson will view himself accountable for the success of the FE and skills system, which most of us would agree will require additional funding.

The announcement that Kemi Badenoch, appointed minister for children and families last week, would support Williamson in his work for the sector was also broadly welcomed. After all, she is not only a former apprentice, she also took her A levels at a further education college while supporting herself with a part-time job at McDonald's.

It is far too early to assess how this new set-up will work, or how effective it will be. Maybe this finally is good news for an FE sector that has spent years battling for public attention and appropriate financial support that allows it to not simply survive but thrive. But I am afraid it may well not be as simple a story as that.

No dedicated minister

For starters, as secretary of state for education, Williamson was always going to be responsible for FE as part of his remit. But in the past, that came with the support of a minister of state for FE, most recently Anne Milton.

Crucially, while much remains to be seen, one thing is undoubtedly true: in Boris Johnson’s government, FE and skills does not have a dedicated minister. Ms Milton may not have been a secretary of state, but her sole mission was the apprenticeship and skills policy of her government. She did not also hold ultimate responsibility for a large school sector that will inevitably demand attention, as does Williamson.

Ms Badenoch’s list of responsibilities on the DfE website currently lists 11 separate issues – from children’s social care to special educational needs, education policy in response to the race disparity audit, and safeguarding in school. At the time I write this, not one of them relates to FE directly.

Apologies for stating the obvious, but FE is a complex brief – including apprenticeships, sixth-form colleges, general FE colleges, adult and community education, specialist and land-based provision – all with their own challenges and priorities. All important. 

How much time will a secretary of state be able to dedicate to driving policy in an area of education that has never been more important than it is now – possibly weeks from Brexit? I cannot help but worry that a move designed to give FE the appearance of being a priority area could turn out to be little more than window dressing. And that, in fact, it will do little to push the FE agenda, and instead slow down momentum. Only time with tell. I certainly hope I am wrong.

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