It is now four months since the Prime Minister gave me the huge honour of heading up one of the most exciting departments in Whitehall, and since then I have been in a tearing hurry to get on with the job.
Although the pandemic put enormous pressure on all education settings and continues to add extra challenges to our reforming agenda, it has only made me more determined to deliver on our commitment to build back better.
For me, education has always been one of the most vital social levers we have. But without an effective and ambitious skills system, there can be no levelling up, no bounceback from the pandemic, no post-Brexit powerhouse.
So we are going full steam ahead with our skills reforms, which are revolutionising the route from learning to earning.
We are developing a system that meets the needs of learners and employers and will enable the economy to flourish in the future. And we haven’t a moment to lose. We have to put an end to decades of dawdling productivity, which has seen us all too often playing catch-up with our competitors.
My mission is to ensure everyone has the chance to make the most of their potential and to get the training that is likely to lead to a satisfying job, wherever they live.
The Skills Bill is the backbone of all of this. Alongside our wider reform plans, it will promote lifelong upskilling and help transform post-16 education and training and make us an economic force to be reckoned with on the global stage. The pandemic has taught us that the world can change in the blink of an eye. To recover from this – and any other similar event in the future – we need to be far more flexible and far more agile.
The Prime Minister laid the foundation for this new, nimbler skills economy when he announced the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. This will enable people to train, retrain and upskill throughout their lives and in a way that suits them.
The pace of technological transformation continues to accelerate. There’s a study that suggests by 2030 (which, after all, is only eight years away) some 20 million people in the UK alone will lack basic digital skills. That’s two-thirds of the entire workforce. So digital skills figure prominently in all our plans for post-16 education.
Our commitment to a greener economy, too, means preparing people for a world that must operate in a more sustainable way. We must be ready for this. Our workforce must be ready for this.
Luckily, the skills reforms will lay the foundation for this changing economy, not just for next year, but five years hence – ten years and a generation, even – into the future.
The reformed apprenticeships programme goes from strength to strength. We are constantly finessing this to make sure every apprenticeship meets the skills needs of employers and gives individuals the opportunity to progress in their chosen careers. Apprenticeship funding will increase to £2.7bn by 2024-25 alongside other improvements to encourage more small businesses to hire new apprentices.
We’ll continue to grow our T level offer. These top-quality technical qualifications will become as famous and trusted as A levels. They will enable as many young people as possible to get specialised training that is going to set them up for successful careers. More T levels mean more highly skilled workers and that means a more robust economic recovery and growth.
Then there’s the Skills Bootcamps. These offer free, flexible courses of up build up specific skills that have a clear route to a job at the end. Take our HGV bootcamps, for example. These are a rapid response to the current shortage of skilled HGV drivers. They will train people to be on the road, delivering lettuces and washing machines – everything that consumers need – and they will be doing it as early as March.
We are supporting the largest-ever expansion of traineeships as part of the Plan for Jobs. As with apprenticeships and T levels, this has meant working with employers to develop traineeships that provide quality training in priority sectors like construction, digital, transport and green industries.
By enabling people to meet the challenges of a labour market that is rapidly changing, we will not only make the country more prosperous and more competitive, but also fairer for everyone, wherever they live, which will also mean a boost for communities. This is levelling up in action.
Eighteen areas across the country will be pioneering work to build stronger partnerships between local employers and colleges through the Skills Accelerator programme. What this means is the training colleges offer meets skills gaps locally and not somewhere hundreds of miles away. So more people can get the training they need to get a great job close to home.
I know the pandemic has had a huge impact on job prospects and many people will think that switching careers or retraining is too expensive. This is why we are investing more to help adults with our free courses for jobs.
This offer can help adults without a level 3 qualification to get the skills they need for a wide range of jobs. From April this offer will also be available for anyone earning less than the National Living Wage annually (£18,525) or who is unemployed, regardless of what prior qualifications they have.
This is such an exciting time to be working in education and I am extraordinarily proud to have been entrusted with its leadership. To me there is nothing more worthwhile than realising the potential of the people who live in this great country and to set them on a path to a rewarding and satisfying working life.