‘The DfE must champion FE if the UK is to thrive’

12th August 2016 at 01:00
As further education is welcomed back into the departmental fold, a former senior civil servant argues that it is in all our interests for ministers to prioritise skills

DURING My six years as a permanent secretary, my government department changed its name three times. Functions would come and go, with officials spending endless hours working out who was moving where. Erstwhile colleagues would find themselves acting like parties to a divorce.

In 2007, a major restructuring led to further and higher education being removed from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Despite the legendary power of Whitehall mandarins, I had no say in the matter.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown loved to tinker with the machinery of government, or “MoG” as it was known to insiders. It played to a sense of the administration doing things and “reforming”.

Of course, few people in the outside world noticed, and members of the public were constantly bemused by the new acronyms that emerged. It was expensive, too, despite “cost-neutral” claims from the Treasury.

David Cameron, to his credit, made very few departmental changes when prime minister. To some extent, he was constrained by the politics of coalition government and he may have acted differently if he had won an outright majority in 2010. But as with avoiding too-frequent ministerial changes, his instincts were, well, conservative.

Nearly a decade on, we are back to where we started – or at least to where I started when I took over at the DfES in 2006. Further education and skills, along with universities, are back in the fold.

With the astonishing speed of events in early July, I suspect that civil servants had little time to prepare for all the education-related changes. But Whitehall adapts, and already the new department is up and running.

Despite my scepticism about all this tinkering at central government level, there are grounds for optimism for those working in FE and skills. And, dare it be said, could Brexit have a silver lining, in this area at least?

The stakes have just got higher and a slowdown in growth is a real possibility as uncertainty bites. Theresa May’s government will have to put in place a coherent plan to respond, as voters will have short memories if their personal economic prospects decline. Right-wingers might froth at the mouth as talk about an industrial strategy re-emerges. Yet growing a low-tax, export-led economy could have appeal across the Conservative Party.

But if free movement of labour is restricted, then the government will need to redouble its efforts to develop a workforce to service all parts of the economy.

Compelling programme

Everyone talks about the need for “high skills”, and that is undoubtedly an important part of the mix. But what about all those lower-skilled jobs where there is compelling evidence that migration from the European Union has been crucial in filling the gaps?

Whether it likes it or not, the Department for Education will have to address that point, alongside all the talk about the more glamorous job of upskilling the workforce. One might argue that successive governments over the past 15 years have not had to worry about this – now this one does.

None of this is to underestimate the need for further development of high skills. Indeed, if more foreign direct investment is to flow – as the Brexiters claimed – then it is hard to see how this will happen if we are not producing more people with the right skills.

Here, education secretary Justine Greening can make common cause with Liam Fox, at the Department for International Trade, and Greg Clark, at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Indeed, an industrial and skills strategy could form the centrepiece of a compelling domestic policy programme; one that also addresses post-Brexit concerns.

Let’s hope, too, that Sajid Javid, at the Department for Communities and Local Government, remembers how important FE colleges are in meeting local needs and adding to a sense of place. They are often the first port of call for those facing redundancy or wanting to take up new jobs.

Talking of common causes, universities should not be in competition with FE and arguing about who is better when it comes to enhancing skills. From where I sit now as a vice-chancellor, I see a great possibility for joined-up government, with schools, colleges, training providers and universities becoming part of a more coherent lifelong learning continuum. Bringing that to life is a big challenge for the new education department.

There is also unfinished business around apprenticeships. An early statement of intent on everything from numbers to funding to clarity around degree-level apprenticeships and the apprenticeship levy would end uncertainty. None of this is really dependent on Brexit so the government can, and should, move quickly.

Can a dry-as-dust chancellor of the exchequer be persuaded? Well, austerity is under review and invest-to-save might well be back in fashion, as new capital projects are prepared.

Don’t underestimate, too, the opportunities afforded by a new push on social mobility. May’s arrival speech in Downing Street was a powerful statement of intent.

With Greening being the first education secretary from a comprehensive school, and Rob Halfon being a minister for skills who champions “blue-collar Conservatism”, this sends out a clear signal. It is all a far cry from the public school set who ran the last government.

FE colleges were never talked about as an engine of social mobility when Michael Gove or Nicky Morgan were in charge at education. Recognising their contribution and bringing them to the fore would be genuinely innovative and would matter a lot to precisely the sort of families May aims to help.

Political clout matters

Greening is also the minister for women and equalities, a role that has grown in prominence over recent years. Just think of the impact of her endorsing the role of the FE sector in tackling disadvantage and providing opportunities.

Talking about who’s up and who’s down can feel like Westminster parlour games, far removed from the daily experience of those working in the sector. But equally, political clout matters in getting things done.

FE needs a strong champion because schools and universities often get more airtime from ministers. As a minister once said to me: “Further education is for other people’s children.” It wasn’t meant pejoratively. Rather, it reflected the reality that most politicians have little, if any, personal or family experience of the sector.

Yet even if that is true, it is hard to think of a government department that doesn’t have an interest in skills. From transport to defence; health to communities; business to justice – they all need the DfE to be a re-energised champion for FE if we are to thrive as a nation.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and was permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills and its subsequent incarnations from 2006 to 2012

‘Bringing the old gang back together can only be a good thing’

Former civil servant Matt Hamnett, now principal of North Hertfordshire College and chief executive of the Hart Learning Group, writes:

Over the course of seven and a half years in Whitehall, I worked on adult skills, apprenticeship and further education policy in three very different government departments: the Department for Education and Skills; the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; and then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Three things come to mind about the re-creation of a single education department. Firstly – and most importantly by far – it creates obvious opportunities for ministers to take a more holistic, coherent approach to education policy in the round, recognising the many interdependencies that exist between schools, FE and higher education. But that’s only an opportunity; ministers have to be minded to take it.

Secondly, it creates a level of distraction that shouldn’t be underestimated. Only in the civil service would a new organisational structure go live pretty much overnight. It will take many months for all the practical details to be worked through.

Thirdly, from my experience, it poses questions about the level of secretary of state attention that FE and skills policy issues will receive compared with schools and HE. Cabinet-level interest in a policy matters; it’s how you get difficult stuff done in Whitehall.

On balance, though, bringing the old gang back together can only be a good thing in the long term. But do spare a thought for the civil servants who found out that they now work somewhere else via Twitter while they were on holiday.

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