Anne Milton, Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills

Minister Milton’s speech for The Sixth Form Colleges Association’s Winter Conference:  

Thank you Bill for that kind introduction and for inviting me back this year to speak to you all.

This is a chance for me to thank you for all you do, to celebrate your successes and reaffirm the key role you all play in transforming the lives of so many.

I know for many of you it might seem strange that Sixth Form Colleges come under my remit as ‘Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills’, but I truly believe that there is much that links the work of all Further Education institutions.

Whilst you are the leaders in providing a strong academic education, all further educational institutions are linked by their key role in providing direction to young people; helping them grow in maturity through their crucial years; allowing them to develop outside of a school environment; and giving them the aspiration to achieve in whatever field, job or career they go in to.

That focus means you have some different challenges from the General FE colleges. But what unites the college sector is more important than what divides it: the best colleges - whatever sign they have above the door, and whatever curriculum they offer - are focused on the needs of their communities, they have expert and committed leaders and governors, and they have educational excellence at their core.

Background facts and figures

Sixth Form Colleges and 16-19 Academies are truly some of the brightest beacons in our education system. You are key to our work to tackle social mobility, taking in a higher proportion of disadvantaged students than school sixth forms – indeed, these are one fifth of all of your students.

Almost 90% of these disadvantaged students go on to achieve higher results and progress to sustained education, apprenticeships or employment than students in secondary school sixth forms.

Over a third of sixth form colleges and almost half of 16-19 academies are rated by Ofsted as outstanding – this compares to 15% for all FE and skills providers. And this is in spite of what I know have become increasingly challenging financial circumstances.

This is down to your hard work, and I applaud you for what you do.

Strategic College Improvement Fund

(to note – 7 SFCs are quality improvement partners, 9 have successfully applied to the SCIF)

I know that a number of you act as quality improvement partners through Strategic College Improvement Fund. The SCIF supports colleges to improve the quality of provision and helps to mobilise and strengthen improvement capacity within the FE sector.

The fund is a catalyst for collaboration. If you have not done so already, use this opportunity.

A-level reform

I want to congratulate you on the successful implementation of the reforms to A-levels over the last few years, with the first wave of exams in 13 new subjects in 2017 and a further 12 last year.

The reforms will continue to roll out over the next two years, with the first exams in a further 20 new A-levels in summer 2019 and another 13 in 2020. Exam reform is never easy in the last 30 years we have had four significant reforms to A-levels – the introduction of the Advanced Supplementaries, Curriculum 2000 which introduced the AS/A2 structure, the introduction of the A* grade a decade ago and the demodularisation this time.

Oldham visit

Getting out visiting colleges is always the best part of my job. I get up early, work on a train, feel a bit weary as it’s often at the end of the week. However, what greets me at the door is an amazing and infectious enthusiasm – a dedication to the job, an overriding desire to do good, to stand by students and to mould them into young people who will have great opportunities ahead. Any weariness I might have felt melts away.

When I visited Oldham Sixth Form College last year, I was impressed by the breadth of their offer – encompassing both A-levels and Applied General Qualifications – and by the support offered to students to help them progress to either university or apprenticeships. And I particularly enjoyed hearing from a teacher describing how fundamental to their life choices the College was for them – so much so that they returned there to teach! You do an amazing job.

Challenges – Mental health

Last year when I spoke to you I was particularly moved by some of the experiences you shared with me about caring for those under your care who were experiencing mental health issues.

£1.4 billion has been made available across the education sector for mental health. to transform services and increase access to specialist mental health services by 2020-21.

Every school and college will get free training for a Designated Senior Lead for Mental Health. New mental health support teams will provide a trained workforce which will be linked to schools and colleges, with oversight from NHS staff to meet the needs of children and young people with mild to moderate mental health issues. We believe that these teams have the potential to reduce the significant burden that you have been facing.

Challenges – new provision

You also told me last year of the concerns you had over the creation of new 16-19 Free Schools and the approvals process for academies to create new sixth form provision along with representations from a few MPs, I have taken this seriously. There is no point in helping out colleges who have financial difficulties due to falling learner numbers with one hand whilst opening additional post 16 places with the other.

We have strengthened the criteria we use to assess new school sixth form proposals. We have set a clear requirement to all schools that apply to open a school sixth form for all local sixth form colleges and FE colleges to be consulted prior to a business case being submitted.

Furthermore, during the last free school application wave, we were explicit that all applications for new 16-19 provision must provide evidence of need for additional places in the area and that any request is likely to be approved by exception only.

Lord Agnew, the Minister responsible for free schools and academies, and I have been working very closely together on this. I am confident you will see the impact in future waves of free schools.

I know that Lord Agnew has also held a roundtable with a number of you about your concerns surrounding becoming an academy and working with your local RSCs.

I hope you have seen or will see a difference and are working in partnership with your local Headteacher Boards. If there is more that either he or I can do please don’t hesitate to ask, either by contacting me directly or indeed by speaking to the Association.

Challenges – funding

I know, and you know, that there are significant challenges being faced by the sector. I have made it a personal priority to understand the constraints and the impact of these over the last year. I want to thank you all for being so open and forthcoming to me and my officials on a number of visits and roundtables we have undertaken this year.

Of course you’ll expect me to point out that we have at least protected the base rate for funding for 16-19 year olds to 2020. But, I understand that this is against the backdrop of previous reductions and the impact of inflation.

So congratulations to you on your campaign ‘#RaiseTheRate and the wealth of stakeholder support you have managed to get behind the campaign. The level of correspondence sent to the department has resulted in Further Education funding being a top subject for 8 weeks at the end of 2018.

Please continue to highlight the challenges you are facing, as well as the outstanding work you are doing, and remember to please, please reach out to your local MP to invite them to visit once a year.

I applaud you for the great things you are all doing even within the backdrop of increased funding constraints and I understand your frustration about what you can – and cannot – do with the money currently available. I hope you know I will continue to be your advocate both within and outside of the department, and will make the case for your students in the forthcoming spending review. I know you will carry on doing the good work you do which only strengthens the case for additional investment.

[You will also know that a new insolvency regime for the FE sector comes into force shortly. We expect that it will only need to be used rarely but it does provide important protection for existing students of the FE body as a whole if the worst should happen. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for you to get in touch early with the ESFA if there are any signs of financial difficulty so they can support you to resolve issues at the earliest opportunity.]

We are currently focusing on the introduction of T levels, I am pleased to see that there are nine sixth form colleges and 16-19 academies among the adopters starting in 2020 (that’s next year!). As you will know, we are putting in additional funding to support the roll-out of T levels – an important recognition of their importance and costs they will introduce, but of course we know this is not the answer to the wider challenges you face.

Our focus on these reforms does not eclipse how crucial the academic curriculum also is.

Conclusion - Ofsted

You will shortly hear from Amanda Spielman, who I know has spoken on your behalf to the Select Committee regarding the base rate for 16-19 students.

It is a testament to you that you have maintained your standards and the offer to your students. As we move into a potential spending review, your ability to do this is key evidence for me and Lord Agnew to together be your champions, showing just how much more you could be doing with more resources.

Amanda will be talking about Ofsted’s proposals for the new Education Inspection Framework. I am pleased that this event was chosen to launch it. It helps in rebalancing the scales to give greater weight to the FE sector. My department has worked closely with Ofsted as it has developed its proposals – I encourage you all to respond to the consultation, and take this opportunity to shape the final framework.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I want to return to where I started, talking about many of the things that tie us together. I want us to keep working together. Our young people deserve a choice about how and what they go on to study post-16, and you are key in delivering that. An opportunity to learn, mature, develop new skills outside school and find potential that might not have otherwise emerged.

Sixth Form Colleges and 16-19 Academies are known for their outstanding commitment to their students and wider communities, and you are known for your continued dedication to raising standards. I’d also like to recognise how vital your establishments are to the continued prosperity of the country. Through you, your students acquire the independence and the skills they need to go on to do great things: in the workplace, at university and in society as a whole. Keep up that good work, and thank you.

Anne Milton, Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills

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