The future of FE and training after the 2017 general election

Podcast and blog by David Russell, CEO, The Education and Training Foundation: “Why I believe the strong consensus amongst political parties will put FE and technical education at the heart of the education system.”

It is not our role to speculate on the longevity of any government, but what is clear is that there is a clear consensus about the critical role of further education (FE) and skills, compared to the different approaches to higher education (HE), funding and schools policies.

When it comes to implementing an industrial strategy that puts technical education at the heart of the education system, this can only be good news for FE and skills. But it goes further than that – there’s also a recognition that FE has become underfunded compared to other areas of education, and in my opinion, that’s not sustainable.

What a post-Brexit world means for FE

I am looking forward to a renewed focus on technical education, a re-think about funding and a sustained focus on what a post-Brexit world means for skills and employability and the opportunities we give young people in terms of training. It’s hard to predict what is going to happen with the progress of Brexit negotiations – there are many different forces and imponderables, some economic and some international. However, we do know there will be implications for international student recruitment, both in FE and HE, with some colleges already being hit hard by reductions in this area.

Welcoming the reappointment of the education secretary

We don’t have a relationship with the new Minister of State for Skills and Apprenticeships Anne Milton as yet, but we certainly look forward to working with her. Although there has been a lot of turnover at ministerial level for FE, that’s less significant than at secretary of state level. The junior minister dictates pace and tone, along with the exact mix of stakeholders they will work with to develop policies.

When I was in the civil service, I served eight different secretaries of state over a period of 16 years, along with countless ministers. With all of this change comes a complicated process of not only briefing and informing, but discovering what the priorities are for the new secretary of state, deciding which of the decisions already been made will be continued, and which ones need to be re-set. This is why I welcome the news when someone’s reappointed, and specifically with Justine Greening as the Secretary of State for Education, we feel optimistic about the future because she’s showed a strong affinity with FE and a high interest and priority for vocational education. She’s also proved to be canny and cautious and will not rush in and turn things upside down.

The argument for free HE

I thought it was interesting that the Labour Party were clear and positive about free HE – it was eye-catching and caught the imagination of lots of people. However, I’m not sure it was debated fully through the course of the election campaign. I also think it’s a policy which needs careful scrutiny – it sounds like it should be very progressive and should work for all, but it’s not as simple as that. The Scottish Government has had a policy of almost complete subsidy of HE for Scottish students for many years now, and it hasn’t had the effect that was desired – it hasn’t really helped more people from lower socio-economic groups go to university in the hoped-for way. In fact, if you’re poor you’re better off studying in England in terms of access to HE. It’s also true that HE funding also comes at the detriment of FE, so the arguments are not as straightforward as they might seem.

Life at number 10 after the 2017 general election

There’s been lots of speculation that number 10 will run the Government a bit differently now in terms of being less controlling and more collegiate. If that’s the right analysis, then I think it’s good news for the education sector because we know DfE has clear plans to work on. If they can get on and deliver them, that should be beneficial for the public, members of the Society for Education and Training (SET) and the Education and Training Foundation (ETF).

We’re a trusted partner for Government – they recognise they need to have help from experts rooted in the sector to make sure their policies are implemented effectively and have a positive outcome. Having ETF at the table to bring in practical expertise about how policies should be carried out and what the workforce implications are, gives us a great opportunity to get things right.

David Russell is the Chief Executive of the Education and Training Foundation

As told to Julia Faulks - Online Editor at the Education and Training Foundation. 

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