Williamson: England to get 'German-style' FE system

There are limits to what can be achieved by sending ever more people to university, Gavin Williamson says

Julia Belgutay

Gavin Williamson will later address the FE sector and set out his vision for the future

The education secretary has said the FE white paper, expected in the autumn, will build a “world-class, German-style” further education system in England and 'level up skills and opportunities'.

In a speech today, Gavin Williamson said that for decades, the country had failed to give further education the investment it deserved.

He said: “Our universities have an important role to play in our economy, society and culture, but there are limits to what we can achieve by sending ever more people into higher education, which is not always what the individual and nation needs. 

“That’s why this autumn I will be publishing a white paper that will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities.

“As we emerge from Covid-19, further education will be the key that unlocks this country’s potential and that will help make post-Brexit Britain the triumph we all want. I want everyone to feel the same burning pride for our colleges and the people who study there, in the way we do for our great universities and schools.

More: 'FE white paper could be revolutionary'

Background: Keegan: FE White Paper to offer 'vision' for sector

Opinion: Post-16 education needs reform. Now is the time

Skills shortages

In April, Mr Williamson told the House of Commons Education Select Committee that the white paper could be “really revolutionary to drive reform in this vital sector”.

According to the government, 34 per cent of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, and sectors including manufacturing and construction experience significant skills shortages. The government says many of the skills that employers are demanding require intermediate or higher technical qualifications – but only 10 per cent of all adults aged 18-65 in the UK hold these as their highest qualification – compared to 20 per cent of adults in Germany and 34 per cent in Canada.


In his speech with the Social Market Foundation today, Mr Williamson said: “FE stands for further education but for too long it may as well have stood for forgotten education. I don’t accept this absurd mantra, that if you are not part of the 50 per cent of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short. You have become one of the forgotten 50 per cent who choose another path.”

He stressed “fundamental change” was needed, rather than a “tinkering around the edges”. “Local colleges firmly tapped into local business needs will get Britain working again,” he said.

“If you want to transform many of our left-behind towns and regions, you don’t do it by investing more money solely in universities. You invest in the local college – the beating hearts of so many of our towns.”

As education secretary, I will stand for the forgotten 50 per cent. From now on, our mantra must be further education, further education, further education.

“My personal commitment is to put further and technical education at the heart of our post-16 education system. Like the prime minister, I believe that talent and genius are expressed as much by the hand and by the eye as they are in a spreadsheet or an essay.

“We need to create and support opportunities for those who don’t want to go to university, not write them off – or drive them down a path that, can all too often, end with graduates not having the skills they need to find meaningful work.”


He said the FE sector of the future required “high quality qualifications based on employer-led standards”. It also needed “colleges playing a leading role in developing skills in their areas, driving an ambitious agenda that responds to local economic need and acting as centres for businesses and their development.”

The current number of qualifications at level 3 and below was “ridiculous”, said Mr Williamson, also stressing that the government would be bringing forward plans to reverse the decline in higher technical education “so that we can begin once more to train people for the jobs that the economy actually needs”.

“Of course, qualifications are only half of the picture. Equally important is where they are taught. Colleges already play a leading role in many local communities and work with local businesses on skills and economic development, but we need to build on this in a far more systemic way. I want colleges to be pivotal in their communities, training local people to work in local businesses, so that everyone feels the benefit.”

'Those who can, teach'

In future, colleges “should be led by great leaders and governors who are drawn from local communities and businesses, and teaching staff who have already have experience working in and with industry,” he said.

“They should have industry-grade equipment and modern buildings which are great places to learn in and which act as centres for business development and innovation. They should deliver courses that are of the highest quality and which are tailored to the needs of employers and their local economies. They should work with small, local businesses to support the introduction of new technology and processes, and offer training in emerging skills. And there should be a robust system of governance so that every college is financially secure, flexible and dynamic.”

'Colleges can count on me to get the resources they need'

He said amazing and fantastic colleges were "built on having fantastic teachers". "We need to do more to encourage great people to teach in our great colleges – and to give colleges the ability to reward them properly. Those who can, teach.”

He said: “I realise I am placing a huge burden of expectation on our colleges. But I know that with strong leaders and good governance it’s one they’ll be more than a match for. I want them to know that they can count on me to give them the resources they need to do the job.”

“Some people say that further education and apprenticeships are for other people’s children. Let me be clear: I don’t. I’d be delighted if my children went to college or did an apprenticeship.”

Today’s speech comes after chancellor Rishi Sunak announced yesterday announced a range of support measures to help young people into work. He also confirmed that £200 million of a planned £1.5 billion in capital funding will be brought forward to upgrade colleges.

The further education system has seen significant reform in recent years, with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, new T level-qualifications, and the first wave of 12 Institutes of Technology.

James Kirkup, director at the Social Market Foundation, said: “Britain’s longstanding cultural bias against further and technical education is socially divisive and economically wasteful. Socially, too much of our national conversation is based on the implicit judgement that people who don’t go to university aren’t worth as much as those who do. Economically, decades of underperformance on technical education and training, for young people and adults alike, has held back growth and productivity.  

“More support for further and technical education, and more respect for the people who benefit from it, would make Britain happier and richer.”

Supporting 'the power of colleges'

Association of Colleges' chief executive David Hughes said the speech was not about reducing the power and mission of universities, "but recognising and supporting the power and mission of colleges alongside universities to meet the education, skills and training needs of every adult across their lives".

"Our current system simply does not support the half of adults who don’t get the chance to study at higher levels. In fact, it relegates them to second-class citizens, without the investment and the opportunities to improve their life chances. 
"The education secretary’s speech is a rallying call for a stronger, more coherent education and skills system that works for everyone, supports productivity and helps places recover from the pandemic and flourish in the future. All of that requires strong, confident and well-resourced colleges, universities and schools."

Mr Hughes said levelling up meant giving everybody the chance to succeed, wherever they were from, whatever their background and previous attainment, and whatever their ambition.

"We should neither limit opportunities to study at higher levels nor to retrain at lower levels; we need more support for literacy as well as for technicians, professionals, academics and researchers.

"The FE White Paper with the investment to make up for a decade of neglect has the potential to be a turning point for colleges, if it is bold and ambitious. It should build on what already works well, whilst creating a system that is truly committed to lifelong learning, allowing people to be educated, trained and retrained at any stage of their lives.”

Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of CBI, said: “Colleges are the engines of levelling up. They equip people of all ages with the skills they need to succeed at work and drive regional prosperity. But they have been underfunded for a generation. Renewed government support for our further education system will be warmly welcomed by business.

“These reforms must go hand-in-hand with support for our world-leading and highly-respected universities that are struggling so acutely in the face of coronavirus. The FE White Paper is a golden opportunity to join up higher and technical education, drive inclusion and prosperity – delivering the high-skilled, high-paid jobs that communities need now and in the future.”

'Denigrating' the value of HE

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We hope the education secretary’s warm words about the importance of further education are backed up with adequate funding. The truth is that colleges have been woefully underfunded by the government over the last decade. The situation is so serious that the government itself introduced an insolvency system because of the risk of them going bust.

“We are also not sure why the education secretary feels it necessary to denigrate the value of higher education in setting out his ambition for further education. FE and HE both have a place in developing the skills landscape and most FE colleges offer higher-level and degree courses, often working in partnership with HE. Both sectors are of vital importance to our young people and our economy and already provide a variety of pathways to skills and careers." 

Joe Fitzsimons, head of education of skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said: "Directors will welcome the pledge of a further education system that draws on employers' perspectives. Skills gaps continue to be a leading concern for businesses. The pandemic has only amplified this, and many business leaders are eager to play their part.

"It's fair to say that some routes through further education have been under-utilised, and we can look to close skills gaps in different areas by diversifying our approach. Recent spending commitments around apprenticeships, traineeships, and colleges are a welcome start, but there are many more kinks in the system to be ironed out.

"While there has rightly been significant focus on young people, who are often worst hit in a downturn, it's important we recognise the need to improve training across the board. Employers consistently say that alongside Stem they are hungry for improved leadership and management skills, and directors are eager for the details of the new Skills Fund."


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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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