As the coronavirus outbreak encompassed all of public life, colleges prepared to close to most students and providers tried to gain clarity over what government support might be available, new apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan took to social media.
“A huge thank you to all staff in FE institutions across the country rising to the challenge and playing a vital role in managing the impact of Covid-19,” she said, adding: “I also want to reassure all apprentices and other FE students in these difficult times. There will be more information coming soon about what we are doing to manage the impact of Covid-19 on our studies.”
Her fourth week in post – she was appointed in the prime minister’s recent reshuffle – has been dominated by the coronavirus outbreak. But just days before that, the former apprentice sat down with Tes to talk apprenticeships, T levels, and her priorities in the new job.
Every apprenticeship should offer progression up to degree level, Gillian Keegan believes. For the true potential of the scheme to be realised, apprenticeships need to offer progression. “I have long been a huge fan of apprenticeships, particularly ones that allow you to go up to whatever level you can reach," she says. "I didn’t know when I started my apprenticeship that I would end up with a degree apprenticeship. I went through all the levels.
“It is up to you – you can make an intelligent choice based on where you want to go, what roles are available, what skills you need, your home life and all those other things – you can do what makes sense. I am a huge fan of having the capability to take it as far as you want.”
Her focus as a minister, the Chichester MP says, will be on ensuring the availability of high quality apprenticeships across a range of key roles. “I would personally like to have a goal where everybody had the chance to take their apprenticeship up to degree level. Now, of course not everybody would, but at least having that option. I like the idea of being able to continue with your apprenticeship to develop over time.”
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Opportunity is not equally spread
This, Keegan says, would offer opportunities to those who “missed the chance first time round, maybe because they didn’t go to a great school”.
“Sometimes your first experience with education doesn’t give you the result that fits you in your life – that doesn’t mean you are not capable. Quite the opposite, in my experience.”
Keegan's own education at a comprehensive school in Knowsley makes her a firm believer in the statement that while talent is spread equally across the country, opportunity is not.
“That is absolutely my lived experience. I see where this works still today – or not. I see with a lot of my school friends how they got on in life – or not. I can pretty much have my own sort of focus group in a way, which is very helpful.”
Apprenticeships, she believes, have changed since she started her own aged 16 at Delco Electronics, a car factory in Kirby, Merseyside. “The provision and the breadth of apprenticeships is much wider,” she says.
Are apprenticeships now more valued by the general public than they were in her days? “I think in the old days, you had to have done one to know how valuable they were, she replies. "They were almost like a well-kept secret, in a way. They were a fantastic way, particularly degree apprenticeships, to get on the career ladder, but there weren’t that many of them, so I don’t know that they were that widely available.”
Now, she says, apprenticeships are “more prolific, more widely spread and more available to young people”. That has required changes to be made to the system, she adds. “Obviously as a result of that we have also now made sure the quality is high as well. You have to be careful that it is not really about quantity, it is about quality, and about making sure every young person has a highly valuable experience.
“I used to ask a question of people which is: 'If you could go back and start your journey again, would you do an apprenticeship or a degree?’. And I could tell in their eyes the split-second response. I could read their body language to know that they wanted to tell me apprenticeship, but actually they felt degree. And yet, I 100 per cent feel the opposite. That seven years I spent working and studying gave me seven years of work experience at a crucial time.”
She is unconvinced by the amount of apprenticeship levy spent on MBA apprenticeships. Last month, days after Tes revealed the vast amount in apprenticeship levy funding spent on senior leader apprenticeships (including MBAs), education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a review of these schemes – a move Keegan agrees with. “I have done an MBA – I did a Sloan Fellowship, which is like an MBA for people who have spent more than 15 years in business exec positions – but there was no way I would have dreamt that that would be available under an apprenticeship. It is a very expensive thing to do, but it is something you invest in yourself because you do get a rather quick return on an MBA. In fact, I did an MBA and I got a return within one year in terms of salary. If you had told me years ago that you could do an MBA via an apprenticeship route I would have just wondered how on earth that happened. Not that I am against MBAs – MBAs are absolutely fantastic.”
She won’t be drawn on whether the levy system needs reform, saying: “We'd better wait for the consultation to come back. I mean, that would be only polite. And maybe there is something happening that I don’t know – I am only talking from my personal experience – I was surprised to see them there.”
But she is open about a planned white paper setting out a vision for further education reform, due later this year.
And while she is tight-lipped about its content, she believes that education should be firmly "career-led". "The way I have always thought about it is that this is career-led study, instead of academic led study – and I am a huge fan of career-led study.”
Keegan says it is important to her that prospective learners, as well as parents and employers, understand the routes available. “I think we have to be very conscious what it is we are trying to solve for, which is that young people can really clearly see what the options are in front of them, which ones they want to take and where it will take them. And for employers, very clearly to match up what they expect somebody to have studied or what experience they expect them to have and whether they take them on or not.”
The review of level 3 qualifications, which has seen thousands of qualifications lose their funding, is part of that, she believes. “I was actually astonished how many BTECs there are. Having done one years ago, there weren’t that many, and I was kind of curious as to what had happened. It appears that when I did the BTEC it was a national qualification and now it is owned by a third party, and it has had the freedom to develop in many ways. The problem with having many fragmented qualifications and qualification offers is that it is much harder for people to understand them, either which ones to do, or, for businesses, which ones give them the skills they want.”
However, a binary option between just T levels and A levels would be “too simplistic”, she stresses. “I don’t think we would ever have that. That is probably too simplistic. I would imagine that some of these [qualifications] exist for good reason. That is why you do a review.”
In her time as an MP, Keegan has been a regular visitor at her local college, Chichester College, and she is an advocate for the sector, she stresses. The government’s investment in college capital, confirmed in this week’s Budget, she says, is welcome. “Some of them are fantastic, but some of them are not. It is a bit unequal. “If you drew out a vision of what the college of the future would have, [it would have] the best equipment, [and would be] really focused on the jobs of the future and superior learning opportunities.
“Some of our colleges have that – and certainly some of them have got institutes of technology, we have national colleges, we have some fabulous FE colleges, but we really want all the colleges across the country to have that investment. They have probably been underinvested in over time, and they are independent as well, so we have got to come up with the right way to do that.”
Keegan makes no secret of the fact she is enjoying her new role: “It is an amazing privilege to be given this role – it is my dream job. Having starting myself as an apprentice at 16, being able to just really understand that experience and the sector is fantastic. But then, more importantly, to have worked for 30 years recruiting people at various stages of their career, and retraining and re-skilling in different businesses all over the world, I really get the business side of this as well.
“One of the things I would really like to get understood is that apprenticeships and T levels are a high-quality, career-led study option and for that to be understood with parents, with career guidance, with young people. The quality for employers to be saying ‘the quality coming out of the latest apprenticeships and T levels is amazing’, for employers to not be bemoaning what comes out of the system but to be thinking ‘this is what gives me what I need’. For us to walk into a college and it to be evident to everybody that this is a superior learning experience and for our young people to have really good ideas of what careers are available to them and which ones are going to be the ones of the future.”