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Speech by Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language.

First published:
19 April 2022
Last updated:

Noswaith dda gyfeillion ac mae’n bleser cael y cyfle I fod yma heno yng Ngoleg y Cymoedd yma yn Nantgarw I drafod dyfodol addysg bellach yng nghymru gyda chi. A diolch I Goleg y Cymoedd am ein gwesteia - ac I chi I gyd am rhoi o’ch hamser I fod yma.

Good evening everyone. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to be here this evening in Coleg y Cymoedd in Nantgarw to discuss the future of further education in Wales. Thank you to Coleg y Cymoedd for hosting this event in these impressive surroundings, and to you for giving your time to be here this evening also.

Since taking up the role of Minister for Education and Welsh Language last year, I have seen at first hand the huge contribution which the further education sector makes in Wales. And it’s been really gratifying to see the strong relationship between the Welsh government and the further education sector.

But of course we have common interests and values. We are all striving for an education system enables all our students to achieve their potential; but also an education system that that enriches our civic life and communities.

In a sense those are easy words for a Minister to say but I do think we’ve seen the fruits of that relationship during the last two years. And I want to thank you as a sector for the way you responded to the trials and tests of the Covid pandemic. 

You put learners and their needs at the centre of your response. And the support and care you showed your learners and staff was exceptional.

And you’ve worked well with schools to recognise the needs of learners who have really borne the brunt of disruption in our system. And that’s been vital to help our young people transition to the next stages of their education and to keep motivated.

You were incredibly agile in adapting to the new demand for on-line learning, for a blended offer to students. And you have really played your part as colleges in the wider Covid response including even as part of the field hospital offer.

Learner focus, collaboration, adaptability, wellbeing and resilience, local leadership. These five values and approaches are the ones which – for me at least - you have exemplified in the last couple of years. And I think as we look to the future in Wales, these values need to help shape our common vision for further education.

Since becoming Minister in the middle of the pandemic, there hasn’t been a particularly natural opportunity to set out my broader vision for the contribution which the further education sector can make to the future of Wales.

Alongside working with you to respond to the pandemic, we have of course been working together on the most profoundly far-reaching reforms to post-16 education that Wales has seen in the Tertiary Education and Research Bill.

And these are the essential underpinning for a post-16 sector which is fit for the future, but this is not the totality of our vision for further education in Wales.

So this evening, I want to tell you how important to me is the strategic partnership we have with the sector and how I would like to deepen that relationship still further.

And this is a government committed to further education. I was determined that we would reflect that in our budget settlement this year. So for 2022 to 2023 you will see investment of £415m directly to colleges for core provision and support which is the largest increase in many years. And I’m also pleased that we could take advantage of a multi-annual settlement from Whitehall to provide you with visibility of budgets over three years.

And in addition to that I am announcing today a further £17.209m of investment to modernise learning environments.

And as well as funding, initiatives like Taith, our new global education exchange programme, show the importance we attach to creating new opportunities in further education and vocational education.

It's the most generously funded international mobility programme for further education in Wales ever, with £3.5m available for applications this year – the same amount as for higher education. It’s tailor-made for Wales, and will enable students and staff to spend a period studying or working overseas. Applications for the programme open tomorrow, and I would really encourage all of our colleges to apply. Let’s make the most of the exciting opportunities Taith will provide for FE learners and staff right across Wales.

But back to those five values. What do they tell us about the future path. To the first of those values: a learner focus…

At the heart of everything we do is the need to ensure our students gain the skills and qualifications they need to flourish and to progress seamlessly along the range of qualification levels - as we aim for a single, integrated skills system.

A path that starts out perhaps as an entry level course can lead in the end to a vocational qualification, or a degree. And that path needs to be as easily navigable and clearly marked for vocational learning as it is for the academic route.

We published our new Employability Strategy this week and I see the further education sector as a critical delivery partner for the ambitions of the strategy - ensuring access to the right skills at the right time, responding quickly and flexibly to labour market needs. 

And as we have changes in the economy, so too do we have changes within our education system. Whether those are reforms to vocational qualifications in England which are bound to affect Wales – or changes in our own school curriculum which will reset learner expectations and ambitions after 16.

We are going to need clear and coherent post 16 progression pathways from the new curriculum.

The design of a new curriculum beyond 16 will be a shared responsibility of the Welsh Government and the new commission when it is established from next year, after the Bill becomes law.

I am expecting to receive a report from Estyn in the early summer, looking at the availability and quality of the current curriculum offer. That will enable us to take forward a broader review of the local curriculum offer for learners between 16-19, to support our first cohort of new curriculum learners entering post 16 settings from 2027.

And I then intend in my first statement of priorities to the new commission when its established to set the process in train for reform of our post-16 curriculum.

And we are also going to need access to qualifications in Wales that respond to industry need. Our Programme for Government and the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru sets out our shared commitment to significantly expand the range of made for Wales vocational qualifications to fit the needs of our learners and our economy.

We will review the current offer of vocational qualifications in Wales and use the findings to bring forward reforms. We are working with plaid on this and we will want to make sure that no learner in Wales is disadvantaged by reform being driven by the UK Government.

And our learners want to learn both in Welsh and in English of course. Increasing the number of people who can learn through the medium of Welsh is a priority for us all – crucial to the success of our Cymraeg 2050 policy and to the new strategic duty in our bill to expand Welsh medium tertiary provision.

In our co-operation agreement we will fund the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol to increase the proportion of apprenticeships and further education programmes that are available in Welsh.

That’s obviously good news but the challenge to colleagues this evening is to see the goal of ensuring that more study in Welsh as a fundamental part of your mission. What goals and targets will you set yourselves and how will you meet them? Wales needs a confident, bilingual workforce - but let’s be frank, we also know that often a key obstacles to that is ensuring a confident, bilingual workforce in FE.

The Coleg is already supporting colleges to employ staff to deliver courses in Welsh in priority areas. But I want to work with you as a sector to identify how we can do more to ensure that the workforce is there to help us meet this ambition - so let’s work together to solve this challenge creatively.

And our learners increasingly want to learn at any stage in life.

We all know that not everyone is able to make the most of that chance in education the first time round at school or college.

So I want Wales to be a nation of second chances in education. A nation where it is never too late to learn. Where people have the confidence, motivation and means to re-enter education to gain the skills they need to work and thrive at any stage. And a duty to promote lifelong learning is the first strategic duty in our new bill.

But we know that across the UK overall participation in education by adults has fallen over the past decade and the less well-off you are the less likely you are to have had any training since leaving school or college.

So we need to focus our efforts on ensuring that learning opportunities are available to those who will benefit the most. And our new bill will place a duty on the new commission to secure proper facilities for further education and training for eligible adults. A big step forward in adult provision - and it will be backed up by funding. I want to work with you to define the scope of that duty in regulations.

And the next two years are going to be crucial to build the capacity we need to deliver this commitment.

To help us do that I have set up an external reference group for adult learning, with FE representation, so that we can work with all parts of the tertiary sector to improve quality, access and progression in skills based, formal, and informal adult learning. Looking at how we deliver better equity of access, better collaboration between providers, a clear curriculum framework to support progression through further learning, and how we develop and support the workforce required to make this a reality. The group meets for the first time next week.

You will have seen that a theme of the discussion so far has been abour working together. So to the next of the five values – collaboration.

One of the principles underlying the Tertiary Education and Research Bill is that at a system-wide level, we can do more to meet the needs of learners by providers operating within a coherent, complementary ecosystem. And crucially - achieving a collaborative sector is one of the goals and duties of the new commission.

But it is also true at an institutional level of course that often the needs of learners and the economy are best served by providers working with each other and with industry and business and government.

And we are already seeing some examples of successful collaboration between further education, higher education and industry in advanced manufacturing, construction, green energy, in transport, digital and management. There are lots of potential models. This is already showing us how we can develop new strategic pathways, better opportunities for learners and a higher skilled workforce and even access to research for businesses - by putting to one side conventional sectoral boundaries.

Again the Bill is intended to remove some of these boundaries - but apart from that, if you have plans which need us to look again at some of the practical obstacles, my message to you is that I am very open to hearing about how we can look at that creatively.

But even where the aim isn’t that sort of broad strategic partnership, colleges obviously have a long track record of working with local employers to identify skills needs and opportunities for their learners. And I think the task for us all is now to build on that work so that we create what I might call a strategic habit of collaboration between colleges and employers yes, - but also with regional skills partnerships, and government. Which looks both at the long term trends but also responds nimbly to more immediate needs.

If you want an example of the kind of thing I have in mind, look no further than personal learning accounts. We have been able to work together on PLA to react quickly to examples of market failure, to target funding to meet employer demand, supported by RSP intelligence, for example with HGV licences, and health and social care shortages. 

So the first of the newly funded HGV licences was actually delivered within weeks of announcing the funding.

My challenge to the sector is to use this approach, working with employers and RSPs, to influence mainstream provision in the same way, not only where we need to react to today’s market failures, but to pre-empt tomorrow’s employer and learner needs. 

And my officials are working with colleges Wales to develop a more flexible approach within each college’s mainstream allocation, to help you to respond to emerging needs by taking away some of the risks for you, which sometimes comes with new areas of delivery.

And the last thing I want to say in this area of collaboration, is about collaboration between further education colleges and schools. I know colleges will do all you can to support the progression of learners who have faced unique challenges in their qualifications. You have worked in partnership with schools in a very difficult time.

I think the task for us all now is to do more, both as schools and colleges to build on the close working we have seen, to bring the unique assets that schools and colleges have respectively, together - to give our learners a better sense of the world of work, of vocational routes as part of their school journey, and to ease the transition to post-16 for all.

The next principle is adaptability.

We live in a world where change is the only constant. And you are in the middle of that Venn diagram between a changing economy and change in educational provision.

How, what and when people learn is changing. Some of that we have talked about already but I want to draw out one of the major changes that I think is a challenge of culture as well as a challenge of delivery.

And that is the digital transformation of learning. This is not new territory. But what is new is the breadth and depth of it – and the expectations that learners and staff will now have. And experience of the pandemic has only intensified that.

The use of digital tools and technologies should become a natural part of a learner’s wider learning journey, and I want to see our learners equipped with the digital skills and capabilities they need to succeed.

Over the last few years we have been able to invest a lot in delivering the Digital 2030 strategic framework. And during Covid we’ve been able to fully meet the demand from the sector for devices, connectivity and other equipment to make sure that all learners could study remotely when they’ve needed to. So this is a good foundation.

But I also know colleges have started to collaborate on some innovative approaches, such as masterclasses with guest speakers, regional “Teachmeets” and joint online classes in a few cases. And I’m very keen to explore how we could build on this to make a more coherent, modern blended learning offer so that FE learners across Wales can have access to the best possible quality online provision. So please do bring us your proposals for how we can work together to extend this.

Our fourth principle is wellbeing and resilience.

Over the last two years, we have invested very significantly to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff and learners in the FE, work-based and adult learning sectors.

And the huge pressure that the pandemic has put both on learners and staff, will be felt for years to come.

One of the most important things that education can do is help learners to become more resilient so that they can cope with adversity and change. I know a lot of colleges are doing innovative work in this area, as well as working with ColegauCymru to support active wellbeing

So we will continue to work closely with you to make sure that the right support is in place - I have increased the existing funding streams for the next year to support post 16 learner mental health and wellbeing, but I recognise this is a long term issue.

And I recognise as well how vital it is both for the workforce and the resilience of the sector for us to support lecturers in their professional learning and career development. I want to see lecturers and assessors with access to a rich source of professional development and able to refresh and renew their sector focussed skills through a network of industry engagement.

So over the course of the next 12 months, we will take forward four crucial pieces of work to support the profession.

Firstly we will develop a professional learning plan for the further education teaching workforce which will bring together a range of training, advice and guidance for staff at all levels to develop your careers and professional lives.

This will include a core package of CPDso you can access the courses you need, with a focus on improving digital skills. We have commissioned Jisc to develop a bespoke programme for you on designing and delivering blended learning. It’s being piloted at the moment and will be rolled out from the summer.

Secondly, we will be reviewing initial teacher education for the sector, looking at the impact and effectiveness of the current qualifications and incentives and what reforms may be needed.

Thirdly this year we will be taking forward a knowledge transfer programme, bringing expertise from key sectors into colleges to help our learners learn from some of the highest skilled practitioners around.

And fourth, we are also looking creatively at ways to help improve workforce links with industry to ensure our teachers and assessors retain and hone their professional skills and expertise.

A career in the post 16 sector can be incredibly rewarding so we want to raise the profile of post 16 teaching profession and highlight the opportunities - so later this month we will be launching a major recruitment campaign to raise awareness, promote the profession and attract new entrants.

And finally…the last of those five values: local leadership.

We have seen so clearly in the last two years the importance of place in the wellbeing and the economic health of people. And the role of colleges as anchor institutions in their communities and their local economies is increasingly important.

You have a reach through your physical premises, your workforce, your procurement capacity, your skills development, your network of business and industry contacts and your institutional leadership roles which can make a really significant impact in most local areas.

In 2017, a ColegauCymru report suggested that the economic impact of the FE colleges in Wales to the local business community in Wales was £4 billion a year.

Since then we have seen a surge in interest in the strengthening of local economies, be that through the foundational economy, the role of town centre transformation, jobs closer to home initiatives as well as the new working patterns we have seen during Covid which underscores both the potential - and the responsibility - of colleges to seek to contribute to local opportunity and prosperity as much as possible.

So I have asked my officials to do a piece of work with ColegauCymru to develop a current understanding of the wider economic impact of the college sector in Wales and - importantly - how we can work together to support the work of colleges as anchor institutions in your local economies - and also as you work to realise the new focus on civic mission which will be a sector wide priority when our bill becomes law.

Colleagues, in closing, we are living in times of great change and challenge. Whether it be the pandemic, the response to Brexit, climate change, technological transformation, demographic trends. Any one of those would be a big enough challenge in most generations, we are facing them all at once. But we are facing them together.

The further education sector in Wales exemplifies that practical, entrepreneurial instinct that we all need in order to recognise that in the midst of these challenges there are also opportunities, if we are adaptable, collaborative, if we focus on our resilience, on leading in our communities and if we put the needs of the learner at the heart of all we do.

I am excited about the opportunity we have as a sector in the years ahead and I look forward to working with you all, to make the most of it.