I have long been a believer in the power of learning and its ability to transform and enrich the lives of individuals and their communities. I know, as the new Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, that this belief sits at the heart of this Government and its policies.
We recognise the importance of education and skills to building and maintaining a strong economy. It is plain to see that without the right skills we will struggle to compete in the modern world.
However, this does not mean that we need completely centralised control of the further education system. Of course we must ensure colleges, learning providers and training organisations are responding to the needs of employers and learners in their area, but they also need to be free from unnecessary bureaucracy.
Vince Cable and I have written to the Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency setting out our ambitions for the agency in 2010-11. Some of these will be challenging, in particular the need for colleges to find efficiencies. But high among those priorities is also doing more to simplify the landscape and give colleges greater freedom to find new, better and more efficient ways of responding to local needs.
I have also written to colleges and training organisations announcing a number of ways the burdens on them will be lightened. Among other measures, I will work to bring colleges in line with schools in respect of Ofsted inspection, so that colleges which achieve outstanding results do not face inspection unless their performance drops. And I will enable all colleges, except those which are performing poorly, to move money between adult learner and employer responsive budgets.
These changes are just the beginning and an indication of this Government’s commitment to freeing the sector from the constraints that prevent it delivering the best it can.
At the beginning of this month we announced that we were cutting the Train to Gain budget by £200 million. I know that there have been a lot of comments about this in the sector. It is important to remember that this is not actually a spending reduction. £50 million of that money is being recycled into new capital grants for colleges. The remaining £150 million will pay for 50,000 extra apprenticeship places this year.
It is no secret that this Government holds Apprenticeships in high regard. We know that they are a route out of unemployment for many young people and they provide a great boost to the UK’s productivity. Their value lies in the fact that they are designed by employers for employers. They are based on real jobs in the economy and tailored to the needs of the workforce.
However, we also recognise the need for a range of training options. They are not the be-all and end-all of workplace training. That’s why it has never been our intention transfer the whole work based learning budget to the Apprenticeships budget. We are committed to supporting high quality workplace training alongside apprenticeships. And we will do this whilst avoiding the pitfalls of excessive bureaucracy.
As well as recognising the fundamental role it plays in economic growth, I also want to stress that this Government also passionately believes in for learning for its own sake. We emphasise the economic and overlook the social and cultural benefits of learning at our peril.
My strong commitment to adult and community learning is well known. It is shared by my Secretary of State and the Prime Minster. By happy coincidence, my first full week in post was also Adult Learners’ Week, which enabled me to deliver my first major speech at the NIACE lifelong learning policy conference.
The inspiring stories I heard during Adult Learners’ Week really highlighted the difference that learning can make. By feeding the thirst for new competences adult learning often leads to further training and by equipping people with skills it frequently makes them more employable. It shapes people, their families and communities and makes a substantial contribution to creating a society founded on social mobility and social justice.
I will do my utmost to support the further education and skills sector and create the right environment to ensure that it flourishes and is free to reach its full potential. As W.B Yeats wrote, ‘Education is not the filling of the pail but the lighting of a fire’. Learning is a fire that can light lives, warm hearts and bring hope. And, at this challenging time, learning with the enhanced skills it brings is vital to building a competitive economy and a cohesive society.
John Hayes is Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning