'Criticisms of teaching must be taken seriously'
Colleges must take Ofsted's criticism of teaching quality seriously and will have to put up with growing competition from school sixth forms, according to the new minister for post-16 education.
Matthew Hancock, in an exclusive interview with TES, also refused to confirm whether he would be pressing ahead with the FE Guild proposed by his predecessor John Hayes, promising to scrutinise any bids before making a final decision.
But, speaking a month into his new post, Mr Hancock maintained that he planned to continue with the "broad thrust" of policies already in place and offer further freedoms and flexibilities to providers.
While paying tribute to "exceptional performance" in some FE colleges, the minister acknowledged the observation in Ofsted's most recent annual report that there was "far too little outstanding teaching".
Not a single college inspected in 2010-11 was given the top rating for the quality of its teaching and learning, and Mr Hancock stressed the government's ambition to achieve "rigour across the educational piece".
"We've got to take seriously those sorts of criticisms because, while I'm very keen to support and encourage very high levels of performance, we've got to make sure performance across the board is as high as possible," he said.
But, despite criticisms of the quality of some of the record 457,000 apprenticeships created in 2010-11, Mr Hancock lauded his predecessor's work. While Mr Hayes repeatedly came under fire for focusing on training people already in work rather than the unemployed, his successor insisted that "apprenticeships at all levels are an excellent use of taxpayers' money".
"All of the research shows that combining off-the-job study with on-the- job, hands-on experience is the best way to learn a vocation," he said. "I'm a huge supporter. I believe the increase in numbers is a big success story."
The minister was quick to play down his role being split between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a divide many feel has led to the sector being politically marginalised. "I see myself as clearly in one job, where the budget comes from two departments," he said. "I've got a team working with me who move from one department to the other.
"My job is to try to make sure, to the outside world, the gap between the two departments in Whitehall is as small as possible."
Before being moved to a new ministerial post in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Mr Hayes had personally spearheaded plans for an FE Guild to take responsibility for professionalism in the sector. While speculation about the project's future has been rife since the reshuffle, Mr Hancock gave little away. "When I've got something more concrete to say about it, I will," he said.
And despite the minister's close links to George Osborne - before becoming an MP, Mr Hancock was Mr Osborne's chief of staff - he was at pains to stress he would not merely be doing the chancellor's bidding.
"I'm very much FE's person; I'm very clear about that being my role," he said. "I'm passionate about that; my job is making sure FE is the best it can be."
Mr Hancock also revealed that he has been given a wider post-16 brief than his predecessor, covering school sixth forms as well as colleges and independent training providers. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he emphasised his belief that competition would drive up overall standards.
"Does that mean that existing providers will have to live with more provision? Where there's a new provider, yes," he said. "Of course I understand the implications it has for people who are there already, but saying therefore that we shouldn't have new provision would be to argue against more - in some cases - outstanding provision. Do I recognise that it is a challenge for existing providers? Yes, I do."
But on the issue of securing a good funding deal for the sector in the chancellor's autumn statement despite the difficult economic backdrop, Mr Hancock insisted he would have no divided loyalties. "I'll be fighting the corner for FE," he said.
Why it's FE for me
Matthew Hancock on his time studying for an A level at West Cheshire College: "I went to an FE college because what I wanted to do, which was computing, wasn't available at my school. That's the classic example of one of the things that FE does. I'm a passionate supporter of it; I understand it a bit from having being through it and I'm learning much more now."