'There's a lot of work to be done,' says FE minister
For an ambitious young MP in a new ministerial post, missing an early morning slot for your big TV interview would be awkward enough. But when you are the FE minister and you were supposed to be launching a scheme to prepare young people for the world of work - which stresses the importance of punctuality - it's a bit more embarrassing.
For Matthew Hancock, this meant that his grand announcement about traineeships (courses to give would-be apprentices experience of the workplace and improve their skills in English, maths and job preparation) was largely overshadowed by snide jibes about his timekeeping. This was particularly unfortunate given Mr Hancock's reputation for being a hard grafter who likes to get into the office bright and early.
But it clearly takes more than this to rattle the 34-year-old, who was George Osborne's chief of staff before becoming an MP in 2010. During an interview with TES, on a train journey to Leeds for two college visits the day after his non-appearance on ITV's Daybreak, Mr Hancock laughs awkwardly when quizzed about the incident.
"Well, you have to turn up on time and I was one minute late," he says. "And there are consequences."
Keen to return to business, Mr Hancock explains that he envisages that traineeships will last about six months. "There is a lot of excellent practice already in parts of the country but it's patchy, so we want to bring it under a national umbrella and tie in support for people who need more English and maths and more work preparation and support," he says.
While Mr Hancock is quick to point out that all apprenticeships now lead to a permanent job - "except in exceptional circumstances" - and usually last at least a year, he admits that this could isolate those young people lacking the basic skills to become an apprentice in the first place. "That leaves a gap in policy provision in this area, and that's what traineeships are there to fill," he says.
But the lack of interaction between the existing skills and benefits systems, and the perverse incentives that deter the unemployed from acquiring the skills they need to get back into work, are still major causes for concern.
"For too long, there's been a gap between the two systems and they haven't fitted well. For instance, there's the fact that if you are on a course for more than 16 hours a week, then that has an impact on your (Jobseeker's Allowance)... There's a lot of work to be done in this area."
Another thorny issue for FE providers is where schools fail to provide objective careers advice to their pupils about the opportunities available in FE - particularly when schools are keen to encourage pupils to stay on in their own sixth forms. While a new statutory duty compelling schools to offer impartial and independent guidance was launched last summer, many colleges say they have failed to discern any improvement (see panel, below).
Mr Hancock, though, is more optimistic. "We're only one term in. There's clear evidence that, in lots of places, it's happening very well. My impression is schools are gearing up and Ofsted are going to review (the duty's) impact in the summer."
On several issues, however, Mr Hancock refuses to be drawn. He may sometimes share a car home from the Department for Education with Michael Gove, but he does not share Mr Gove's fondness for sound bites. His responses are unhurried, measured and carefully thought out.
He has little comfort for colleges that are unhappy about forking out for VAT (their competitors in the schools sector do not have to make the payments), admitting that it is a "very complicated issue" but "not one that I expect to be able to resolve any time soon". Mr Hancock refuses to publicly back plans for mass academy conversion being considered by members of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum. "Any proposal to move to become an academy will be considered," he says, diplomatically.
Mr Hancock gives a similarly even-handed response to Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw's fierce criticism of colleges' performance in November's annual report, after none were rated outstanding for teaching and learning for the second consecutive year.
Sir Michael's claims that the sector is focusing on vocational courses of "little real value" and "needs reorientating towards a moral determination to provide high-quality and relevant provision" have drawn a furious response from the sector. Last week, the Association of Colleges told TES that there were "significant errors" and "important omissions" in Sir Michael's criticism.
Mr Hancock is reluctant to take sides in the row. "The very best FE colleges are not only outstanding in the formal sense but are brilliant and inspiring, but that's not true across the board."
But what about instances where low-performing colleges are being asked to sponsor local failing primary school academies? Could this be an unnecessary distraction from necessary improvements? Mr Hancock pauses before answering. "I think where it's appropriate it's very positive; after all, there are many outstanding colleges," he says.
But what about the growing number of colleges that have received poor inspection reports from Ofsted? Mr Hancock pauses again. "Every academy application is judged on its merits," he finally replies. He may have been an MP for less than three years but he has already learned how to answer questions like a politician.
Matthew Hancock CV
- Attended Farndon Primary School and King's School in Chester
- BA (Hons) in philosophy, politics and economics, Exeter College, Oxford
- MPhil in economics, Christ's College, Cambridge
- Economist, Bank of England, 2000-2005
- Chief of staff to George Osborne, 2005-2010
- MP for West Suffolk, 2010 to present
- Parliamentary under-secretary of state for further education, skills and lifelong learning, 2012 to present
'Worrying deterioration' in careers advice, MPs find
Matthew Hancock may be of the view that making schools responsible for providing impartial careers advice has been a success, but some of his fellow MPs would beg to differ.
A report published on Wednesday by the Commons Education Select Committee said the decision was "regrettable" and raised concerns about the "consistency, quality, independence and impartiality" of the guidance on offer.
"We heard evidence that there is already a worrying deterioration in the overall level of provision for young people," the report said. "Urgent steps need to be taken by the government to ensure that young people's needs are met."
The report addressed FE colleges' concerns that some schools with sixth forms fail to inform students about vocational options available at rival providers, due to the drive for "bums on seats". This can, the report said, lead to schools facing "a conflict between the interests of their learners and the school's interest in trying to keep learners with them because of funding".
A report published in March 2012 by the Association of Colleges found that just 18 per cent of the colleges surveyed said they were granted "significant" access to students at local schools; 74 per cent claimed schools would not even distribute their prospectuses.
The MPs recommended that schools should be forced to publish details of the FE providers that meet their pupils in order to improve transparency and impartiality.
The report also stressed that face-to-face advice is "an integral part of good quality careers guidance", and called for schools to be required to publish an annual "careers plan" outlining their provision and the resources being made available.
The remit of the National Careers Service should be expanded to include a "capacity-building and brokerage" role for schools, the MPs said.
But the committee cautioned against further overhaul, which, they said, "would lead to greater uncertainty and upheaval, with a detrimental impact on young people". The report added that no extra funding should be given to schools, but said they "need to make careers guidance a priority within their budgets".