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'Time will tell if Theresa May's post-18 speech was a landmark one'

The Association of Colleges' chief executive David Hughes says he hopes Theresa May's Derby College speech will foster debate

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The Association of Colleges' chief executive David Hughes says he hopes Theresa May's Derby College speech will foster debate

Here are the words of the prime minister: “The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough.

"They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society – and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other, but both.”

Hard to disagree with, really. I should clarify, though, that these are the words of then prime minister Jim Callaghan, in 1976 in his famous Ruskin College speech. The words could equally have been those of the current PM, Theresa May, in her Derby College speech on Monday.

Time will tell whether I was one of the privileged to hear first-hand a landmark speech that prompts a shift in the education system in the way that the Ruskin speech did.

A commitment from Theresa May

I certainly think that the approach and the focus was refreshingly new, so I hope that it does foster debate, discussion and action in the way the prime minister clearly wants it to. That’s not a party political statement, but a desire from someone committed to a more open, fair and creative education system which delivers lifelong learning opportunities for all.

It was refreshing to hear the prime minister say that we have focused for too long on one form of higher education at the expense of further learning for others. I agree. The obsession in our system and in middle England with three-year residential undergraduate degrees has crowded out attention, interest and of course investment in anything else.

So, part-time study and qualifications at sub-degree level (HNCs and HNDs, Levels 4 and 5) have declined at rapid rates, while the need for lifelong learning has increased because of such factors as new technology, perhaps to be accentuated in coming years because of artificial intelligence – and longer careers and longer lives, perhaps to become even more important if Brexit results in fewer skilled migrants filling jobs.

So if this is to be Theresa May’s Ruskin speech, then let me say how delighted I was that she chose to do it at Derby College. It was a symbolic move to choose a college rather than one of our universities, but it was an inspired choice to use the college’s Roundhouse building. While it speaks so much to our industrial heritage, it now offers a re-purposed and inspiring learning spaces to all of its community. 

'Tricky balancing act'

The review is significant because it encompasses all of post-18 learning, spanning HE and FE. That means that the review will be a tricky balancing act. It would be wrong to damage the growth in the numbers of young people accessing three-year undergraduate degrees. However, more investment is needed to make other forms of higher education more attractive and more accessible.

Colleges support more than 150,000 people to study to sub-degree and degree level. With the right support and investment, this number could be much higher. That would mean more adults able to improve their work and life prospects by studying in their own community – while working and dealing with other commitments, such as caring.

So, I am optimistic that the review will be good news for colleges, which support young people and adults to progress in their learning to higher levels – both through their own courses and at universities. But I hope that the review will also herald a new relationship between colleges and universities. More collaboration, more playing to each other’s strengths and a willingness to support the other to do what they are best-placed to do well.

The Ruskin College speech is worth reading again. We all need to learn the lessons of past reforms, but particularly because the resonance with today’s speech is strong. Here’s what the prime minister of 1976 said: “With the increasing complexity of modern life, we cannot be satisfied with maintaining existing standards, let alone observe any decline. We must aim for something better.”

I wonder if Theresa May read it recently – because that just about sum’s up today’s challenge as well.

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