I'm sure you'll all want to join me in congratulating Kirsty Wark on the impressively high levels of skill in the kitchen she displayed recently by reaching the final of the BBC Celebrity Masterchef competition.
That was quite an achievement. The daytime television enthusiasts among you who have seen the show will know that its catchphrase is
"Cooking doesn't get tougher than this".
Speaking of great achievements, a second helping of congratulations must go to the UK team that competed at last month's WorldSkills competition who are here today.
I'm sure most of you know how fiercely competitive WorldSkills is. Yet our team, over half of whom were apprentices or former apprentices, won 5 Gold medals, 2 silvers, and 6 bronzes, plus 12 Medallions for Excellence. That placed us 5th out of 51in the competition, ahead of Germany, France, our best-ever finish.
One of our gold medals was for cookery.
And I can say with all due deference to Kirsty that cooking really doesn't get tougher than that.
If the members of the team would like to stand up. I'm sure that everyone here would like to take a closer look at the best of the best our skills system can produce and people who represent the level of achievement to which all our learners should be able to aspire.
And I'm sure we'd all like to show them our appreciation.
Given the fall from the state of grace with which we've all been struggling almost since the beginning of time, I understand why few human beings see as many reasons to be cheerful as I do.
But we can all be cheerful about the progress the further education sector has made; is making. Progress through the changes we've made since coming to Government.
It's good to remember just how much needed to change.
For how long FE was neglected.
It's easy to forget just how far we've travelled together over the last 18 months.
Just how many petty restrictions we have swept away,
Just how many pointless quangos are no longer around to interfere with your work.
And just how many more apprentices are there gaining the skills and experience upon which they can build
good careers and fulfilled lives?
By the way, anyone who has still to be convinced of the importance of Apprenticeships could do worse than read the Institute for Public Policy Research's new pamphlet Rethinking Apprenticeships, which is being published today and to which Vince Cable, Martin Doel and I all have contributed.
There is always more we can do. But a record 442,700 apprenticeships starts is an achievement of which you can be proud and the Government can be proud too.
Last year, when I spoke to you, I set out our vision of a free sector supporting growth and social renewal.
Today I want to describe not only the journey we have been on together since then. But also the next steps.
Of course, I know that in the FE sector new beginnings have never been in short supply. Over the last 10 years we've had
Four skills strategies, two FE strategies and the Leitch Review.
Three Acts of Parliament, the old LSC agenda for change.
And countless Secretaries of State, and even more FE Ministers.
I hope you agree that since we came to power the message has been clear: FE – no longer the neglected middle child between schools and HE, but the prodigal son.
And the strategy I formed with you, for you, at the outset holds firm.
Because the simple truth at its heart holds true; it is this: If we want skills provision sufficiently responsive to meet dynamic economic and social needs, power must rest in your hands.
In framing our plans, having listened to you over the years, I had no doubt about your capacity to respond to the most radical change in the assumptions about FE in recent years.
A paradigm shift; a sector that moves quickly.
I am so proud of what you have achieved. Thank you.
I am especially pleased with the way you have delivered on apprenticeships – the biggest growth in apprenticeship numbers ever. There are now 267,200 apprenticeship starts for 16-24 year olds; and 175,500 for 25+.
That's growing the skills of our workforce by building people's prospects.
This summer, we gave you yet another document. New Challenges, New Chances. It cements the strategy by responding again to what you have said.
Following the consultation to which so many of you responded – and thank again you for that – we're now on the verge of another package of reforms.
But never again a signpost to a future that will never happen.
I can't anticipate the changes and challenges that will face our successors when our time is done, but I know that by building our strategy on time honoured principles we'll be fit to face the journey to the future.
A future of lives changed for the better because of the difference your work makes.
Now "we have longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life. "
My direction of travel has been plotted on the roadmap you can help to draw. We have not only sought your views at every stage, we have taken them seriously.
That is because only you can ensure that the sector's teaching and learning is what's right; what is needed.
I'll do all I can to see that you get the funding you need, but each of you, all of you are uniquely sighted about how best to spend it to meet the needs of your local areas.
My view matters, but I'm certain yours matter more.
I want to abolish as much uncertainty for FE as I can.
So the New Challenges, New Chances reforms will be designed to help you plan for years – at least until the end of this Parliament - and to do so the ephemera of spin and soft soap must be washed away, replaced by a cleansing long term vision.
No different strategy on my watch. This plan will last.
And I can assure you that these plans will not be a lurch in an entirely new direction. On the contrary, they will follow the direction of travel that Skills for Sustainable Growth set a year ago and to which you contributed so much.
I want to talk mainly about that perspective during the rest of my time today.
About the new relationship between colleges, our economy, and the kind of civil society the coming generations deserve.
A relationship in which colleges will be trusted not only to manage their own affairs, but to play a key part in designing the whole framework within which they operate.
A new relationship that challenges all of us, but which is fundamentally true to the legacy of the founders of adult education in England.
I believe, like them, that further education should exist for the benefit of local people and their communities.
And that it should feed the local economies that sustain them.
Crucially – that it should help ensure that every parent's wish comes true; that their children enjoy the best chances and better prospects that earlier generations enjoyed,
My vision is a sector freed from Governments that predict and provide. Free to reflect and respond to what it sees around it.
What do you see from the window of the principal's office?
Does it make you cry out, like Miranda,
"O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!"?
Shops, offices, factories, open or closed.
Groups of mainly young people talking or speaking into mobiles.
People on foot, in cars or on buses going about their business.
Your communities. Your people.
But I'll tell you what you don't see.
You don't see me. Though I do know that some of you have my photo on your desks (some even on bedside tables or in wallets, I am told) and that's perfectly understandable.
You don't see Vince Cable's nor Michael Gove's. (no photos in wallets there)
Not Geoff Russell's face nor Simon Waugh's nor Sir Michael Wilshaw's.
What you see is where your interest lies, where your passion for learning lives.
People write and talk a lot about localism but a lot less about what it ought to mean.
Localism is being aware of your community's needs, sensitive to its roots, careful about its future; feeling for the people around you, their prospects and their welfare, knowing that your fulfilment is bound to their well being; understanding that we are all part of an organic whole, each of us stronger because the whole is stronger.
Each of our endeavours, achievements nurturing the common good.
You are stronger for me not telling you how to relate to the people you serve.
The past tendency in parts of Government was to see running an FE college like running a sweet shop – that is finally at an end. I know what you do – run multi-million pound organisations, which, in business terms, are large employers.
I know that what it takes to be a successful college leader is not so different from what it takes to run any successful business and retain the support of your board of directors while drawing on their expertise.
College governors are typically busy successful people.
So why ask them to give up their time unless we actually allow them to govern?
You are shaping the skills Britain needs to prosper.
Key to the future of your communities, colleges can help to fashion Britain's future.
And so we must have the courage to set you free to do so.
I don't want the sector to be rule-bound. I want you to establish best practice yourself through collective action like this week's publication of the Foundation Code of Governance.
That process of liberation began when I spoke at City & Islington College 18 month ago and continued with Skills for Sustainable Growth last November.
The outcome of our New Challenges, New Chances consultation will map how much further we will travel by the end of this Parliament.
But I can give you just a taste of what's to come.
First, it's clear that you must have the ability to innovate to meet new demands.
Margaret Sharp and her colleagues have stressed the need for an innovative code. And I thank Margaret for her presentation this morning and for the work she has led in producing the Colleges in the Communities report. I think we're only just beginning to understand quite how important this work and its follow-up will be.
So I will ask my officials to organise with the AoC a series of workshops to put into practice Margaret's proposals.
Second, we must allow you to accelerate the speed of change.
We can't afford to prevaricate when employers have needs and there are unemployed adults ready to meet them, its no use waiting for the system to catch up. You need to get started and we will bring forward further plans to make real the changes heralded by Education Bill.
That means more deregulation more quickly.
I'm pleased to tell you that Geoff Russell has found an easy way to do it - funding new start-up programmes through a simple mechanism.
Geoff may say more on that when he speaks to you on Wednesday.
Third, there are over 2.5m people unemployed – a million of them young people – in this country at present. So I have also asked Geoff to use the normal process of reallocating funding to good performers, funding for those NEETs most in need.
And because of the urgency of this issue we are making up to £25 million available this academic year to increase capacity to improve the skills and employment prospects of the most disengaged young people using the in-year flexibilities in the skills funding system.
Fourth, all organisations need stability in order to plan, to innovate and to build relationships. That is why I will continue to argue for colleges to be given three-year budgets, including for capital, of the sort that universities have enjoyed for decades.
Fifth, I want our changes to HE to have colleges at their heart. We will deliver more higher education in colleges – the 20,000 places is a beginning, not an end.
And we will redefine higher learning through the accelerated development of level 4 and 5 apprenticeship frameworks. I will shortly announce the first round successful bids for funding for this step change.
Sixth, on apprenticeships: we will make the growth in numbers sustainable by further cuts in bureaucracy; by marketing apprenticeships to businesses that don't yet enjoy their benefit with fresh verve and vehemence; a renewed emphasis on quality; and ensuring good fit between welfare reform and our skills offer
The Government can do much to empower the learner and we are doing so, through things like the new National Careers Service, Lifelong Learning Accounts and good information on where jobs will be in the future – linking advice to opportunities and growth.
Another sort of empowerment is recognising a shared responsibility for supporting learning; the Government providing core financial support, some individuals paying fees supported by loans and employers contributing so supporting learning too.
But the essential relationship remains that between learner or employer and provider.
Because first-class programmes of learning; quality of teaching; and students growing by gaining new skills. These are at the beating heart of further education.
Some cynics claim that me declining to tell you what to do and how to do it will lead to chaos. They say you're not ready for freedom. That by me trusting you "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world"
I prefer another of Yeats' memorable phrases, "a terrible beauty is born". The beauty I am thinking of is the beauty of imagination; the beauty of creative minds. And its only terror is the thrill of new.
Some critics call me an old-fashioned Tory. And they are right.
My approach is rooted in the Toryism of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury of Randolph Churchill and Rab Butler.
My approach to your sector, our sector, certainly echoes the approach of my party when Disraeli, said that
"all power is a trust; that we are accountable for its exercise; that from the people and for the people all springs, and all must exist."
The changes we propose – and will publish by the end of the month - are a radical shift of power, from me to you.
But I want to make clear that I am and will remain accountable to Parliament - to the elected representatives of the people you serve- for the justness of your decisions, the excellence of your leadership; and the quality of your services.
And after serving the people of my constituency, I see that as the greatest honour of my political life.
Thank you for that.
Thank you for coming with us on this journey.
And thank you for all you do, for all those whose lives you touch.
Further Education – once described as the neglected middle child of our education system – now favoured.
Favoured by me; by the Government of which I am part.
Further education grown tall. Grown strong. At last, treated as a grown up.
Favoured Sons and Daughters, Further Education has come of age.