25th September 2009 at 01:00
Ahead of Labour's Brighton conference, Pat McFadden, business, innovation and skills minister, tells Alan Thomson how the sector fits into its re-election plans

Pat McFadden is at pains to stress the "critical" importance of further education and skills in the UK, mentioning it three times in the space of a 20-minute interview.

Colleges and other providers are key not only to digging the economy out of recession, but also to reshaping the UK's industrial future, the business, innovation and skills minister said.

It is ringing endorsement, and also a lot to ask of a sector that Mr McFadden said had once been not so much a poor relation in education as a forgotten relation.

"The further education system has a critical role to play both in terms of working with employers to meet their needs but also in ensuring that individuals have the capacity to benefit (from economic change)," he said.

"Colleges have a critical role to play in terms of the skills answer to the recession, and there is an optimism and hope because colleges are already doing an excellent job in responding to that challenge."

Mr McFadden said that the skills strategy planned for the autumn would focus on how to make the system work better for both employers and individuals.

"I think it is right to say that the dialogue between colleges and employers is better than it used to be, but that does not mean that it is as good as it can be," he said.

"The question addressed in the skills strategy is, how do we make the skills system work better for employers and how do we enhance the offer to individuals and settle these in the context of the overarching industrial policy framework?"

The skills strategy will address a number of areas in which the Government is keen to see the UK become a leading global player, including digital technologies, manufacturing and low-carbon technologies.

While the strategy will lend national direction and context to the further education system, it is the Government's intention that each of England's nine regional development agencies (RDAs) will produce their own skills strategies to shape funding priorities for a future Skills Funding Agency.

"It seemed to us that, in the context of reorganising the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), it might make sense if the RDAs and local authorities were charged with bringing together a single regional strategy," he said.

The ability of colleges to respond to local and regional skills needs is a strength, according to Mr McFadden. And yet scores of colleges are currently revising their delivery and development strategies in the wake of the capital funding debacle.

Each capital bid represented a plan to improve education and training opportunities. So how, on the one hand, can the Government call upon colleges to help shape the future of the UK economy while leaving so many institutions unable to deliver their strategies locally and so seriously out of pocket?

"Of course I regret the fact that the spending controls on this programme were not as good as they could have been," he said. "And I understand the disappointment of colleges that are not able to progress on the timetables they set out.

"But what I would say is that before we came into office, FE was not even a poor relation but a forgotten one. We have invested pound;2 billion in 700 projects at more than 300 colleges. In 1997 not a single penny was spent on capital. We have changed that and breathed new life in.

"We must not allow the investment that has gone on to be dismissed. And, secondly, this is an ongoing programme for the future."

Another current problem for colleges is Train to Gain funding, which the LSC has had to halt in order to avoid exceeding the available budget for this year. This is precisely the sort of employer-led activity that Mr McFadden would like to see more of.

"I think Train to Gain has done tremendous work," he said. "We have freed it up and made it more flexible. But I am not in a position at the moment to talk about any future changes. However, if our political opponents had their way, there would not be a Train to Gain programme at all."

The making of McFadden

  • 1965: Born in Glasgow
  • 1988: Politics MA from Edinburgh University
  • 1993: Speechwriter and policy adviser to John Smith MP
  • 1994: Adviser to Tony Blair
  • 2002: Political secretary
  • 2005: Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East
  • 2006: Minister for social exclusion
  • 2007: Minister for employment relations and postal policy
  • 2009: Minister for business, innovation and skills.

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