Williamson puts FE at the heart of his agenda

The Conservative Party Conference gave us an opportunity to hear from the new Secretary of State for Education. It was great to hear Gavin Williamson put further education at the forefront of his speech, with a “promise to make technical and vocational education the first choice for anybody with the aptitude, desire and interest to pursue it.”

The language and tone felt distinctly different to his predecessor, Damian Hinds, The word ‘vocational’ is back, and there was a more broad focus, beyond T Levels and apprenticeships alone.

There was also a new policy announcement; £120m of capital funding to create 8 new Institutes of Technology (IoTs). So often, we have seen new Secretaries of State bring in radical new ideas, and ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ This seems more like a recognition that the current policy needs to be refined and improved. It recognises that there are gaps in the existing network of IoTs, and there is a clear vision for “every big city to have at least one great institute of technology that can act as a focus to drive forward technical and vocational qualifications, working closely with industry and higher education institutions.”

It’s fair to say that IoTs have not been a roaring success so far. The intention is that colleges, universities and employers will collaborate to specialise in higher technical training at level 4 and 5. It is an admirable ambition, and full coverage will help move towards realisation. However, much more must be done to create the pipeline of learners with the “aptitude, desire and interest” to opt for IoTs.

Gavin Williamson seems to have understood the scale and challenge of his brief rather quickly. The following words will resonate with anyone who has an interest in the sector:

“Governments of all colours have talked about technical and vocational education… but deeds, in truth, have rarely matched the words.”

This commitment should give us all hope that his positive words will be met by willingness to engage and meaningful action.

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