From education to employment

Empowering FE: Liberal Democrats’ Plan for Education Equity and Investment

Munira Wilson exclusive

Liberal Democrats believe that education is an investment in our young people’s future potential and our country’s future growth. That vision is embodied by our colleges, which provide learners of all ages with the skills, confidence and resilience they need to flourish.


I often get asked what the favourite part of my job is and, without hesitation, I always say visiting schools and colleges. Because I love seeing education in action, I love hearing from children and young people, I love talking to school and college leaders about what drives them and the barriers they face in fulfilling their mission.

I share the desire to see every child flourish, no matter what their background and I am frustrated with a system where teachers and college leaders are constantly trying to do more with less.

I have visited a number of FE colleges including my local college, Richmond upon Thames College, which does a fantastic job, in challenging circumstances, in serving students from not just across the London Borough of Richmond but right across London, with many from very disadvantaged backgrounds. 

I saw just what a difference FE colleges make to young people’s lives. Yet despite the great work done in FE it retains its Cinderella reputation, never quite getting either the kudos, or funding, that it rightly deserves. 


In part that is due to leadership, or rather lack of leadership from the top of Government. When Gillian Keegan was made Secretary of State in October 2023 she became the fifth Secretary of state in four months. And without strong, consistent leadership from the top there is no stability, no continuity and no long-term planning.  

Education has fallen off the Government’s, the media’s and the public’s agenda and we must fight to get it back where it belongs; front and centre. Instead of being confined to the side-lines, I want to see a complete culture shift in how the Westminster bubble views education.

Education as investment

In the eyes of the Treasury, children and young people are often seen as a financial burden, a drain on government resources, which is just wrong. 

When assessing funding for infrastructure projects like new roads or railways the Treasury calculates the anticipated long-term benefits in terms of job creation and economic growth. However, when the idea of building a school or college is proposed the Treasury sees no long-term economic benefits, no economic uptick. 

Education is core to how individuals and society will flourish. It opens the mind; it fosters understanding and tolerance and it equips people with the skills, knowledge and creativity they need to thrive in a modern economy.

Liberal Democrats believe that education is an investment in our children’s future and our country’s future. It is spending on human capital which will generate returns for decades to come. It is time that the Treasury recognised that. 


The pandemic has had such a big impact on all parts of society, but none more so than children and their education. 

Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s education tsar acknowledged that children needed £15 billion to bridge the educational gap created by the pandemic. But the recovery programme that Sir Kevan called for was just not delivered. 

The Sutton Trust has said that the attainment gap, which was once closed, has widened considerably following the pandemic and that 10 years of progress has been wiped out. They believe that tutoring is a useful tool in tackling this. 

I recently visited Southwark FE College to meet young people taking part in the Get Further programme, an initiative which supports young people to secure gateway English and maths qualifications and unlock educational opportunities. 

Tutoring has been a really effective mechanism to help those pupils who are slipping behind or taking resits for Maths or English GCSEs. Public First’s research has shown the impressive impact that tutoring has had on GCSE pass rates and overall grades in key subjects. There were 62,000 additional pass grades in GCSE English and Maths due to government-funded tutoring during the 2021/22 and 2022/23 academic years. 

But with no new money in the budget in March, this intervention is likely to fall by the wayside. Liberal Democrats would continue tutoring and offer a “Tutoring Guarantee” for every disadvantaged pupil who needs extra support, recognising that tutoring is most effective when we allow headteachers and college leaders to decide themselves how to run the scheme. 


Many of the problems facing FE colleges at the moment are mirrored in other areas of education but magnified because of the lack of focus on the sector. Take the crisis in teacher numbers. It is awful in secondary schools, but with the average salary in FE colleges around £9,000 less it is no surprise that the sector is far short of the number of English and Maths teachers that it requires. 

FE colleges have little prospect of meeting the Government’s new requirement to deliver a set number of hours for English and maths teaching until this situation is resolved. 

Disadvantage Gap/Pupil Premium 

Education spending has fallen as a share of national income over the past 14 years, and we are now a country which spends more money servicing the debt of the past than it does on the future of our young people. Even when there have been any increases, rising inflation has eroded any benefit. 

Schools and colleges are being asked to do more and more while being given less and less. So Liberal Democrats commit to increasing college funding per pupil above the rate of inflation every year. 

And things have been particularly difficult for the college sector. Investment in 16-18 year olds has fallen even further behind. The IFS says that college spending per student in 2024–25 will still be about 10% below 2010–11 levels. 

Liberal Democrats would do two things to start rectifying this. Firstly we would review further education funding and work to exempt colleges from VAT.  Secondly, we would extend pupil premium to this age group. Liberal Democrats in government were very proud to introduce the pupil premium, which targeted funding at our most disadvantaged school children but it is time to extend it to age 18. Disadvantage does not stop at age 16 and neither should the extra support that is needed. 

Skills & BTECs

The UK labour market is currently facing huge skills shortages and high rates of youth unemployment. New technology is reshaping the employment landscape and being able to upskill has never been more important. 

A key ingredient is first-rate careers guidance. Every pupil should be given regular face-to-face support by a qualified careers teacher so they can understand the opportunities that are available to them. 

Unfortunately, well-trodden routes to reskilling and boosting under-represented backgrounds are being cut off by this Government. The scrapping of dozens of BTECs and other applied general qualifications that students value and employers trust is misguided. Research shows that BTECs boost both white working-class and black students’ entry to university so defunding BTECs is totally regressive. Until the new T Levels are bedded in, well understood by students and employers and shown to be successful, rolling back BTECs is a mistake. 

While I fully support the desire to achieve parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes post-16, this Conservative Government seems hellbent on shutting down the middle route for those students who would benefit from a mix of both academic and applied qualifications or for whom T-level entry requirements are simply too high.

Advanced British Standard

The Government is pushing ahead with developing its new “Advanced British Standard”, which is frankly a vanity project for the Prime Minister, at a time when there are so many pressing issues facing the sector. 

It is true that the current curriculum has sucked the life out of education and sucked the joy out of teaching for many. And employers say young adults are not leaving education with some of the important transferable skills they’ll need to thrive in the workplace. Instead of empowering children with core skills such as critical thinking, communication and creativity that will equip them to thrive in our modern economy and contribute to society, they are bogged down by the constant need to perform in a series of tests. 

But to tackle this issue properly we need to urgently establish a standing commission to build a long-term consensus across parties, teachers, school leaders and experts to broaden the curriculum and make qualifications at 16 and 18 fit for the 21st century. The issue is too important for constant revision and needs to be settled for the medium term. 


Alongside further education, apprenticeships have a huge role to play in upskilling. We need to see more of them but they also need to be more attractive. For an 18-year-old considering their options, an apprenticeship comes with a nasty surprise. The “apprentice’s wage” of just £6.40 an hour is nearly half the National Living Wage. Shockingly low, and exactly the wrong incentive if we’re looking to build the workforce of the future. 

We need to fix the broken apprenticeship system by making it much more flexible for employers and ensuring apprentices are paid a fair wage, helping to tackle soaring drop out rates. What is needed is a broader more flexible system that will work better for individuals and meet business needs. 

Lifelong Learning

The Government’s flagship lifelong learning entitlements are at least a step forward in improving access to lifelong learning for adults. However, the Government has not made a compelling case that a student finance system designed for undergraduates will be attractive to older people. Asking mature students, many of whom will have mortgage or family responsibilities, to be repaying their student loans well into their retirement is an unattractive proposition. The Department’s own short courses trial attracted a mere 37 loans in the past year and is a clear demonstration of the apathy for that funding model. 

Instead we should be offering grant funding as part of the mix of funding adult education. Liberal Democrats have built on our proposals to create a skills wallet, giving every adult a pot of money over their working life to spend on education and retraining. It can be partly match-funded by employers, local authorities and other organisations.

If we want to create a fairer and more inclusive society we must recognise that upskilling is key. It is not just a means to secure better job prospects, but a pathway to social mobility. 


Education has never been just about getting good grades. Education means to “draw out” – it’s about drawing out the very best in every person. It is about producing well-rounded, happy pupils who have the skills they need to thrive in life. 

We now expect all children to remain in education or training until the age of 18, yet spending per pupil aged 16 to 18 is lower than it is in secondary schools. Despite that, we ask our sixth forms and our FE staff to teach more specialised subjects, with smaller classes and on lower budgets. 

Liberal Democrats believe that education is an investment in our children’s and young people’s future potential and our country’s future growth. That vision is embodied by our colleges, which provide learners of all ages with the skills, confidence and resilience they need to flourish. It is high time we valued them properly, by extending the pupil premium, protecting student choice and fostering a culture of lifelong learning. That is what our post-16 education budget should be delivering.

By Munira Wilson MP, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Education

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