Colleges are the beating heart of the Covid recovery, education secretary Gavin Williamson has said.
Speaking at the Association of Colleges' annual conference today, Mr Williamson said colleges should be "fully aware that they will be playing a much bigger and significant role in the skills revolution that government will deliver for the country".
He added: "This should be an exciting opportunity for them to embrace and we're very much down that road: the White Paper, what will follow in terms of that. These are cementing colleges at the heart of our economic recovery, part of our skills recovery, and they're very much at the heart of being able to compete on a global level with the right types of skills and start closing that productivity gap that has widened over the last decade and more."
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He said the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published in January, meant that the FE sector was ahead of many other parts of the education sector.
"If you look at what the government is already doing, in many ways our college is already ahead of so many other sectors of education, because we've already got our Skills for Jobs White Paper, which is absolutely the centre point of what the government is going to be doing in terms of making sure that our systems are in place in order to be able to rebuild back better out of this pandemic and colleges a slap bang in the centre of that initiative," he added.
'The future is further education'
In his speech, Mr Williamson said "without any hesitation that the future is further education".
"I’m sure that my passion for further education is not news to any of you," he added. "If there is ever an opportunity to bang the drum for this sector, I am there. I make no apologies for this. It’s something I believe with a total conviction and Covid has only confirmed that belief about how important all of you are.
"We are going to continue our great rebalancing between higher and further education, which began at the last spending review and which we have now continued in the White Paper, Skills for Jobs. This will make going to college, or taking an apprenticeship, as compelling an option as studying for a degree at university. The development of technical skills, the greater embedding of digital skills, the ability to retrain or upskill at any time – all these have never been more important than they are now, than they are today."
On remote learning, Mr Williamson said colleges were the trailblazers when it came to remote delivery.
"We saw the FE sector really leading the way in terms of online learning as well and actually trailblazing as to how it can be done. I think that's something that I just really want to take the opportunity to thank all those who work in our colleges for the work and commitment that they put in, not just to welcoming their students back but also making sure that online provision was of the highest possible quality and supporting youngsters and students of all ages in terms of their learning."
He added: "I know the challenges it has placed on college leaders and their teams, the extra work, the added pressure, none of this has gone unnoticed. Already we are seeing the beginnings of a post-Covid legacy which will be of lasting benefit.
"I hear, for example, that the Heart of Worcestershire College, Grimsby Institute and Dudley College have between them produced more than 400 hours of digital content for a range of subjects, which is being shared via our Get Help with Remote Education site. While Weston College and Gateshead College have teamed up to deliver over 370 wellbeing sessions and 13 new health and wellbeing video toolkits."
Mr Williamson said there would be more information coming soon on a year-long Strategic Development Fund pilot, and said the £65 million fund would support colleges "as they reshape what they do; for example, by piloting the changes we expect to see in the local skills improvement plans or setting up business centres".