“I’m attempting to learn about a brand new brief, while meeting people on Zoom and without any visits you would normally do to get acclimatised. It is quite a baptism of fire with the challenge facing the whole sector. And it’s all at a time when the casework has never been busier.
“The minute any announcements are made on TV, people are emailing me asking how to apply for furlough for grants. Guiding constituents and business through this is an incredibly challenging time. But it’s certainly not boring,” Toby Perkins laughs.
Just before the Easter weekend, the Labour MP for Chesterfield was appointed as shadow education minister for apprenticeships and lifelong learning.
It’s been an unusual start to the job, to say the least. But it’s a remit that he is clearly passionate about, and one that covers parts of the FE sector that is calling out for support during this crisis.
Background: Labour announces shadow education ministers
Like many of those who benefit from the lifelong learning that FE provides, Perkins hasn’t had a straightforward journey to where he finds himself now. “I was never one of those politicians who was politics-mad from a young age,” he says.
Perkins grew up in Reading – both his parents were academics, with his father teaching at a local FE college. A family move to Leamington Spa saw him go to a very “modern and unusual” school – the kind with a dedicated smokers' corner, and a school where teachers are addressed by their first names, and students do not wear uniforms.
“For me, possibly, a more disciplined environment might have been better. I can’t say I look back with huge fondness on my school time,” he says.
Perkins moved to Sheffield with his mother when he was 16 – she had taken a job at what is now Sheffield Hallam University – where he studied A-level courses at the the local college for a few months before dropping out.
“Having had parents who were very involved in the academic world, I was disinclined to go down that path, and I left school at 17 to go into the world of work,” he says. There, he thrived, working in telesales before moving to a recruitment firm and working his way up to regional manager and later setting up his own business selling rugby kit.
Sport is a huge passion for him: he played rugby for the Sheffield Tigers, has a rugby coaching qualification which he put to good use coaching his son’s rugby team, and he is also the goalkeeper of the parliamentary football team.
'I had a strong sense that Labour were my team'
Politics, he says, had always been a part of his childhood. His great-grandfather was the last ever independent MP for Oxford University, and his grandfather was a Labour Party candidate in the 1945 general election.
“We were a political household. My parents were Labour Party members and I had a strong sense that the Labour Party were my team, and that left-wing politics were the values that had driven me. But I didn’t join the party until I was 27,” he says.
That was in 1997, a time when politics for him was a passion rather than anything he aimed to develop into a career. Tony Benn was his local MP in Chesterfield, and he campaigned for him during the run-up to the 1997 election. In the years that followed, Perkins became more and more active in the party.
In 2003, he volunteered to stand as a candidate for the local council, and was elected as councillor for the Rother ward in Chesterfield, a seat he held for eight years.
He finally ran as a candidate for the general election in 2010. “I thought I could do better than the guy we had last time, and decided to put myself forward,” he says. He won the seat – the only seat his party gained off the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the two parties that went on to form the coalition government.
Winning that seat did not come easily. “It was a hugely exhausting two and half years. The minute I became a candidate, it was a case of 'could I win the seat', rather than preparing for parliament. I’d given almost no thought to the parliamentary part of the job,” he says.
“I am very conscious that through that period and subsequently in the years following, when I was a brand new MP with a tiny majority, that the family sees less of you. My son was 12 and my daughter was 7 in 2010 – it’s a huge sacrifice that you have to make."
'A real whirlwind'
Things did not get less busy once he was sworn in as an MP. Within three months, Ed Miliband made him shadow children and families minister, working with shadow education secretary Andy Burnham.
“It was a real whirlwind, but Ed was very much of the view that he wanted new people to come into the team to be on the front bench, and I was a beneficiary of that,” he says.
“It was a fascinating role: I went into it without any sense of having a knowledge of the areas I was covering. I was subsequently moved into the business team a year or so later. I always say that I moved into the education team thinking I wouldn’t know any of it, and actually I did, and I went into the business team thinking I knew it all, and learned that there were a lot of things I didn’t know,” he says.
So while his new role as shadow minister for apprenticeships and lifelong learning is not his first foray into education, he feels better suited to this one than his first appointment. Why? Because of the consistency he serves in Chesterfield.
“One of the key priorities for me as an MP in a town like Chesterfield is the way that we, in this country, are going to make our living in the future. Things have changed so much in post-industrial towns like Chesterfield in a sense of where that work is, it is less visible than having 5,000 workers turning up at the factory gate as we would have had 25 years ago.
“The whole changing scope of skills, we will need to do several different jobs over a 10-year period rather than a job for life. All of that is an absolutely fascinating area, especially at a time when the Labour Party has a massive amount of work to do to win back the towns that we lost.
“The people who have become disaffected with the Labour Party are very much those people who in many cases, further education, skills, apprenticeships, lifelong learning adult education will help to navigate the changing times,” he says.
The fate of training providers
The future may hold changes for all of us, but with the coronavirus pandemic, the present is no less of a challenge. A big part of Perkins’ new remit is apprenticeships: an area in the FE sector where many providers are fearing for their survival. Membership bodies have warned that the government's lack of support risks putting many independent training providers out of business.
Perkins says it is a "betrayal of the industry" and of many young people’s futures if providers are allowed to collapse.
“The providers are not being treated how the procurement guidance the government has issued says they should be treated. There’s a sense in the industry that the government is seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of certain providers. I feel incredibly strongly that this is a huge priority for the government,” he says.
Lifelong learning, too, is an area of concern as many face having to re-skill or be out of work. This week, the Local Government Association urged the government to provide grants to council-run adult education providers to help them support vulnerable adult learners during the Covid-19 crisis.
“It’s just another example of adult education being given the priority that it needs. In recent years, there has been a sense that apprenticeships is all FE is about,” Perkins says.
“The role of FE in giving people a second chance or assisting someone to do something that might not directly lead to a job, but might support someone who has been through a crisis, has been lost. The extent to which adult education has shrunk is incredibly counterproductive for the kind of economy we are going to be needing in the post-Brexit future.”
Perkins is conscious he has only been in the job a couple of weeks, and that time has been one of crisis for the entire country. So for now, he is simply trying to do his job in unusual circumstances.
Personally, he says, he has coped well with the restrictions placed on people during the pandemic. He explains he is in a relatively new relationship – he has been with his partner Amanda for a year and a half – and spending so much time together could therefore have ended up being a challenge. But, he insists, he has no complaints. “I certainly don't anyway, and if she has, she certainly hasn’t articulated them,” he laughs.