Dave and George have departed stage left followed by a bear, well a Gove in fact. Nick Boles the previous skills minister resigned before he was pushed and the new broom of Mrs May has been sweeping the corridors of power clean in a fresh start to ….well…..it seems most things.

So where does this leave the skills agenda?  Back before the summer recess, Nick Boles had just published a skills plan and Lord Sainsbury had delivered a simplification of vocational qualifications down to 15 routes. Under Theresa May will any of this survive? The Rt Hon Robert Halfon the new Minister of State in the DfE has been given the skills and apprenticeships brief. Halfon is keen on apprenticeships. But then what right-minded person isn’t if they are quality routes to full time careers as they used to be. He has helpfully confirmed that the Apprenticeship levy is staying.

However I think a more existential challenge may lie in moving the skills brief from the old Business department to Education. This may sound rather counter-intuitive but driving FE even deeper into the arms of the educationalists may not deliver what the government, and students want, which is stronger, better routes into fulfilling careers. While employers want people trained with the right skills to grow their businesses.

For some time now, I have been convinced that the idea that Colleges are there to serve students and that students should be at the heart of everything they do is old thinking. In one sense it must be true. Colleges deliver education. And they deliver it to students. However if they perceived themselves as instead being all about developing skills, then their main clients must de facto be employers.

Skills without jobs to use them in is a bit like baking a cake that noone will eat. Of course having a mission that is all about employers and employment does not mean that Colleges stop being predominantly about the processes of education. But culturally, and in terms of mindset, it is a different proposition to say we are here to serve our local employers than it is to say we are just about the process of education and serving students.
Moving colleges’ mindsets to focus on real success, which would be that their students achieve meaningful careers, I believe requires a move away from a narrow view of the ‘student at the heart’. Having the skills minister in the Department for Education may not help this mindset. We need employers at the heart of college life far more than they are at the moment.

Feeling warmly about their students is comforting for many in FE and highly laudable but this rather misses the point if students leave the college for a dead end job with no prospects for promotion. Transforming lives doesn’t come through learning alone. It comes from having great teaching staff who also enjoy great relationships with employers.

So placing skills as part of DfE’s remit may not help change the mindsets of those who run our colleges from that of educationalists to that of being stewards of skills, adept at forging relationships with employers, whose first instinct will be ‘what will our employers think of this course or approach’.
And of course creating such change in mindsets is one of the hardest things to do. Often organisational change can take many years. Inertia is a powerful force, hence all those old sayings such as ‘better the devil you know’. Why would those who have benefited most from the current way of looking at things want to change to something new and unknown. And what can government do to help such processes? One way was supposed to have been through the Local Area Reviews. Yet if we look at what is happening through the area review process the degree of inertia in the system is quite staggering. Failing colleges, some heavily indebted, are being allowed to limp on. Obvious mergers are being fudged. Clear cases for rationalisation are being ignored. Will Robert Halfon see the Local Area Review process as a success or a failure? It wasn’t his idea. He can disown the outcome. Indeed what was the point of it at all if it wasn’t intended to help speed up much needed change processes?

I hope I am profoundly wrong about all of this. I hope that moving FE into the Education department will prove a sound move but I am not sure. I also hope that Mr Halfon is a good negotiator capable of persuading the new Chancellor, Philip Hammond to cough up a little more cash to help colleges to, for example, engage better with employers.

Much of the previous government’s skills agenda remains in place. Where the new priorities reside we will have to wait a little longer to find out.
Nick Isles is CEO of Corporate Agenda, advice consultancy
Twitter: @nicisles

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