The party manifestos ahead of the general election were packed with further education and skills. Since then, nothing.
A major speech on skills by education secretary Gavin Williamson had been pencilled in for this week, but promptly disappeared from the government communications grid.
But there are signs that attention is beginning to return to the skills agenda. The first was the news that Baroness Wolf has reportedly been drafted in as skills and workforce policy adviser to the Number 10 policy unit, focusing on skills and apprenticeship policy across all government departments, according to Politico.
It’s hard to think of a government adviser who has had quite as much influence on post-16 policy as Baroness Wolf: author of the Wolf report on vocational education, an architect of the apprenticeship levy and, most recently, a member of the Augar review panel.
Remember the Augar review? You know, the report that called for a fundamental overhaul of post-18 education and rebalancing of funding from HE to FE? The one that was published eight months ago today and which, despite the Tory manifesto promising to “carefully” consider its “thoughtful recommendations”, it has yet to publish an official response to? That one.
As it turns out, this is perhaps no bad thing for FE. Before the election, it had been received wisdom that the report’s recommendations were dead on arrival; the West Midlands' Tory metro mayor Andy Street said as much to college leaders back in November.
Augar: still on the table
But Conservative MPs increasingly represent an electorate beyond the co-called “red wall”, often with closer ties to their local college than universities. Well-placed experts are increasingly confident that more of Augar’s recommendations could yet emerge than had previously been anticipated. Frankly, why would Number 10 install one of its authors in its inner sanctum if it were about to ignore its main message?
This is backed up by briefings emerging from the Treasury, which suggest that chancellor Sajid Javid’s March budget will reveal details of the £3 billion “national skills fund” promised in the Tory manifesto. In terms of how this fits with the government’s aim of “levelling up” British society, skills will play “a big part”, a Treasury source told the Guardian.
Further education, it seems, is about to return to the political front line.