Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green to the Association of Colleges annual conference today.
Thank you Justin. It is a pleasure to be here speaking to you all, in person, in the opening session of your 2021 annual conference. Over the next couple of days, there is an exciting programme looking forward to the challenges and opportunities in the year ahead, but no doubt also reflecting on the year soon coming to an end. And what a year it has been for colleges, their students and their staff. I want to say on behalf of the Labour Party, that we are in awe of the lengths teachers, lecturers, support staff and college leaders have gone to to keep young people engaged and learning during a period of such disruption. I want to take this opportunity to applaud and thank you for that effort; it is truly valued.
As we tentatively look to life after the pandemic, it is clear that the skills system must be an essential part of how we rebuild our country. The economic picture is bleak. Living costs are rising, taxes increasing. People’s pockets are being squeezed, and at the same time, public services are struggling and lack investment. These aren’t just problems created by the pandemic or the government’s failure to effectively plan for the short term impact of leaving the European Union.
The supply chain crisis, empty shelves, petrol pumps and risk of Christmas chaos have been 11 years in the making. 11 years of Conservative governments have been characterised by low growth, stagnant wages and falling living standards. If we are to overcome these economic challenges, investment in a skills system which delivers skilled young people ready for work, and ready for life is vital. The Budget should have been a chance to kick-start that investment, but unfortunately the opportunity was missed.
Analysis from the Learning and Work Institute shows that after a decade of cuts to post 16 provision, the funding pledged over the spending review period will still amount to only 60% of the 2010 position. 11 years of Conservative government is holding education back, preventing investment in the latest technologies, in training and professional development for FE staff, and in capital investment to make college facilities fit for the future. It is disappointing that, at a time when our economy has to adapt to the huge challenges of digitalisation, climate change, and the post-Brexit environment, investment in skills remains so lacking. And the effect of that chronic underinvestment is seen in the statistics.
Four in ten young people are leaving education without the qualification levels they need, and at the current rate of progress it would take 300 years to reduce this even to three in ten. Nine million adults are lacking basic literacy or numeracy skills, and the number of apprenticeships has fallen by over 40% since 2010. When I was preparing for this speech I looked at how government departments have been doing with their apprenticeship targets. I was astonished to find that nearly half of government departments have seen a decline in apprenticeship starts over the last two years, with 60% still missing their target for employing apprentices. Far from leading the way, even the Department for Education failed to hit the public sector apprenticeships target.
Under the Conservatives education and training opportunities, which should be the backbone of a strong economy, are in freefall. And while the Conservatives talk the talk on the importance of vocational education, they do not walk the walk. A clear of example of this is the skills bill, which had its second reading in the Commons yesterday. It’s a bill that once again misses the opportunity to make the real step-change we need for a skills revolution in this country. To enable more young people to leave school and college with the qualifications they need for work and for life. To enable adults to retrain and reskill at any point of their life, to meet the demands of an ever-changing economy and workplace.
As the bill goes into committee, we will be defending the valuable amendments our colleagues have introduced in the Lords. We must ensure that more adults get the opportunity to retrain when they need to. That’s why the government, should commit to an annual review of the impact of funding restrictions on re-skilling those who wish to get a qualification at A-Level equivalent or lower than they already hold. They must review Universal Credit conditionality to ensure adult learners who are unemployed remain entitled to UC if they enrol on an approved course, because these are exactly the people for whom returning to college is so important.
Labour welcomes the introduction of T-levels, we want them to succeed, and I pay huge tribute to the colleges which took on the task of delivering new qualifications during the pandemic. But we will not drive-up skills and qualifications by reducing opportunities. T levels won’t be right for all students, and if we ask students to specialise too early, there is a danger that the Government will reduce, not enhance, student choice, especially for the most marginalised.
The over-hasty removal of most BTECs risks holding young people back from achieving the qualifications they need. Last night, ministers finally recognised the real concerns the Protect Student Choice campaign, Labour and so many across the sector have raised. The Secretary of State announced the de-funding of BTECs would be delayed for one year. But for me this doesn’t go far enough. Some BTECs will survive – but the sec of state won’t tell us which. That undermines confidence among employers and students. The announced removal of the requirement for GCSE English and maths to access T levels last night came without any indication of what support will be put in place to ensure students do achieve these essential skills, or how the additional need for work placements that might result will be accommodated.
Meanwhile, pilots continue with the English and Maths GCSE requirement in place – do what does last announcement mean for these students? Ensuring the right choices remain for all students, is so important especially for the most marginalised, and that’s why Labour will continue to urge Ministers to take the time to get all this right and to accept our amendment passed in the Lords with cross party support for a four-year moratorium on scrapping BTECs.
I also have concerns about the government’s current approach to Local Skills Improvement Plans. Because we wholeheartedly believe that colleges and providers should be at the heart of the decision-making process, alongside employers and mayoral and local authorities.
The government issues platitudes about working with colleges, but the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric. Despite claiming to want to rebuild trust after a decade of cuts and neglect, their actions have shown otherwise. Just this year we have seen the adult education clawback, attempts to defund BTECs, and a lack of a formalised role for colleges in local skills improvement plans. And last night, the Secretary of State once again failed to recognise the essential role colleges play. We got lots of warm words, but in practice it’s not a partnership.
When Labour say we want to work with colleges, we really mean it. I was delighted that David Hughes joined a roundtable with employers and education experts that Keir Starmer and I hosted earlier this month as we begin to develop the next stage of our ready for work; ready for life policies. And it is why I make a commitment to you today: we’ll build the system we need now and for the future, together with you. Because it is only with your expertise, knowledge and experience that we can design the system we need.
Like you, Labour is wholeheartedly committed to a world-class vocational education system where opportunities to earn, learn, and develop new skills are available to all. As Keir Starmer made clear in his conference speech, Labour’s plan for the future has skills, training and employment at its heart. Labour wants to see children leave education as well-rounded young adults, skilled for their futures, ready for work and ready for life. That starts with ensuring children and young people can recover from the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Our Children’s Recovery Plan would give colleges and schools the resources they need to support young people. This includes the creation of a new Further Education Recovery Premium, available on the same basis as the pupil premium is in secondary schools. It also includes greater investment in small group tutoring, free healthy breakfasts and extracurricular activities for all school children, and the opportunity for students to remain in education for an additional year. Labour is committed to a comprehensive recovery plan because if we fail to invest in young people now, we will all pay the price long term.
But beyond the immediate issue of post-pandemic support, Labour wants to work with employers, educators and training providers to deliver the skills young people and our future economy will need. That is why we are calling for the government to use the underspend from the apprenticeship levy, which is not working, to create 100,000 apprentices in this financial year. It is why we have committed to giving every school and college access to a professional careers advisor one day a week, ensuring children are able to make informed choices about the range of academic and vocational options ahead of them. It is why we will re-instate the equivalent of at least two weeks of compulsory work experience. And it is why we want to see life and digital skills embedded across the curriculum, with every child guaranteed access to a device at home; ensuring children leave school with the vital skills they need for the future.
Young people starting out in the workplace now will still be working into the 2070s. As the rate of technological change increases and the jobs of the future are created, our education system must be able to keep pace. We need a skills system that genuinely transforms life chances, that creates new opportunities for those who need them, and that has the potential to make our society fairer and our economy – from households to business – more prosperous and secure.
Labour has a vision for a holistic education system that is equipped to deliver this aim, one that presents genuine choice, and one that ensures every young person can access the world class vocational and academic education that’s right for them. And as we develop our policy programme to deliver that vision, I want to work with and listen to training providers, colleges, lecturers and teachers like yourselves. I very much look forward to doing so and to continuing our conversation after today Thank you for inviting me to speak to you and enjoy the rest of the conference.