Within weeks, the Conservative Party will usher in a new prime minister – and any subsequent reshuffle could well mean the end of Anne Milton's tenure as apprenticeships and skills minister.
She says that, following the defeat of Michael Gove, she’s backing Jeremy Hunt. And while her own future is just as uncertain as that of the two candidates for the move into Number 10, she leaves no doubt as to whether she would like to remain in post: “I’ve always said that I think this is the best job in government,” she says. “I’m dealing with providers of education, colleges who do a fantastic job, who every time I meet them, every time I see them, what comes across is that they’ve got a really strong social mission."
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The skills minister adds: “Yes, they are being paid to deliver the training, but their social mission sits above everything they do. They’re giving people first, second and third chances to get education or training to help people get on in their lives.
"I see that incredible enthusiasm, passion, belief in what they’re doing, I see young people and old people who receive that training absolutely blown away, by the chances and opportunity, and by what they can actually achieve. I literally spend my life seeing people realise their dreams.”
Three stories have particularly stayed with her: one of a single parent who started an apprenticeship after her child told her that during a class discussion about what their parents’ jobs were, they had to admit that “my mum does nothing”. After not working for 10 years, that mother then went on to get a degree, Milton recalls.
The second tale is that of a young boy, kicked out of college twice, who was then taken on by a big employer to do a level 2 apprenticeship, and went on to a degree apprenticeship. He said to the skills minister: “I’m a miracle. If you told me 10 years ago that I was going to be doing a degree, I would have thought you were mad.”
Then there was the woman who started a level 5 in social care – a woman with three kids, by herself, already working. When asked what made her do it, she said she "thought she was worth it”.
The minster’s passion for further education is obvious. And it’s these examples, she says – the people who have lightbulb moments and change their lives – that make the top job in FE so rewarding.
Of course, the chances, training and opportunity she speaks of are limited by the funding pressures the sector is facing. Launching his campaign for the post of prime minister, Boris Johnson already said that the government should "do more to fund our amazing FE colleges, which have all too often been forgotten". The Augar Review, published in late May, also urged the government to give colleges £1 billion.
Does Milton think that a new prime minister, and a new government, will deliver on funding for FE? “I wish I had a crystal ball and could look into the future, but people have said further education matters, so if it matters, then you’ve put money into it. If you put money somewhere else, then it matters less.
“Augar is a very significant document, there’s lots of recommendations in there and the new prime minister will have to have a look and decide, but the case for further education is very clear,” she says.
Accountability, the minister believes, is crucial. She does not want to comment specifically on Tes revealing provider Free2Learn paid their sole director £3.6 million in benefits over two years, but says: “Generally, if you look at vice-chancellors, look at staff at universities, if you look at college principals, people in any organisation that is receiving government funds, they need to be mindful of the use of government money because it’s taxpayers’ money,” she says.
When it comes to college insolvencies finding alternative solutions would always be her preferred option. Last week, Tes revealed Cheadle and Marple College had asked the Education and Skills Funding Agency for emergency funding to help pay its staff. And last month, Hadlow College became the first to be placed in education administration.
Looking back over her two years at the Department for Education, Milton says there’s nothing she would have done differently.
“I suppose, with hindsight you can see all sorts of things where you might not have wanted to start from the position you started in. I wish the institute had been up and running earlier, but from the point I came in it was already established, so the changes I would have made, I do wonder whether anyone could have foreseen the issues we’d had. No, I don’t wish I had done anything differently,” she says.