Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

It’s a good week for a skills conference.

Because exactly 70 years ago, in January 1944, Parliament was discussing the big wartime issues.

Questions on the availability of wallpaper.

A statement lifting restrictions on men’s suits – letting tailors add pockets.

And a short debate on whether the home guard should be allowed to wear kilts.

To which the government’s answer was – no.

But they were also looking forward to life after war.

Almost on this very day, Parliament passed the Butler Education Act.

The Act is famous for establishing grammars and secondary moderns. But it also aimed to create vocational schools – so that there were good technical options, too.

Now a lot’s changed since 1944.

Wallpaper is abundant. My suit has several pockets. I’m reliably informed the TA have kilts - if they want to.

But that idea – of equal prestige for vocational and academic routes – it still burns strong.

And that promise – of good education for all our young people – is every bit as important.

On the anniversary of this landmark legislation, I want to talk about how we see vocational education. About what happened after Butler, and where we are now.

And about a new generation of elite vocational education institutions - that might finally win vocational education the status it deserves.

What happened after Butler

Of course, there were attempts to improve vocational education before Butler.

Like the leading figure who felt Britain didn’t celebrate manufacturing enough – that there was a gulf between traditional and technical education – and who worked hard to raise the status of mechanical craft and industrial design. That’s Prince Albert – who helped set up the 1851 Great Exhibition to tackle the problem.

The Butler Act, 90 years later, aimed for the same thing. It raised the leaving age – and introduced the idea of secondary technical schools.

But while grammars and comprehensives spread across the country, just a handful of secondary technical schools were built.

We struggled with that legacy for decades after.

In the 60s, we had some important developments – a new Open University –the Robbins Committee turning colleges into universities.

In the 80s, we had the energy of Kenneth Baker – the champion of NCVQ, City Technology Colleges – the man who freed colleges from local authority control.

This was a principled response to the failings of the forties.

But then came the frothy years of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

There were many warm words about vocational education – while at the same time, colleges came under ever-growing central control.

And governments were so obsessed with the idea that half our young people should go to university – dazzled by an arbitrary number – that they quietly forgot about the rest.

Pattern the same – until now

Well not now. Not on my watch.

Some things might seem similar to 1944.

There’s a coalition government.

We’re in a tough spending environment.

But this time - we are determined to break the cycle.

To persevere despite the challenges –to focus, not to falter – until every young person has the chance to thrive – to do all we can to create a world-class vocational system.

How are we doing that?

So what are we doing to achieve that?

We are increasing the rigour and responsiveness of the system.

Because vocational and academic education will only be valued equally when they are equally valuable.

Take apprenticeships.

Instead of being designed by committee, using complex, messy frameworks – we want clearer, better standards, written by employers.

Our 8 trailblazers are already helping us prepare reformed apprenticeships.

They’re in sectors from finance to food, aerospace to auto engineering – and are all committed to developing apprenticeships that are more responsive to employers’ needs.

That’s combined with higher standards. Proper graded assessments, especially at the end, higher requirements for maths and English – and a minimum of 12 months in an apprenticeship. These things make for more meaningful training.

And we want more apprenticeships, too.

We had a record 868,700 people participating in apprenticeships in 2012 to 2013 - a 7.7% increase on the previous year. Over 1.5 million applications for vacancies over the 12 months to October 2013. An average of 11 applications for every apprenticeship. We recently announced £40 million more funding for higher apprenticeships by 2015 – and the number of higher apprentices has more than doubled between 2011 and 2012.

We want the norm for young people to be choosing between university, or a high-quality apprenticeship.

And these numbers are encouraging.

We’ve also introduced new study programmes – getting 16-18 year olds to do qualifications that lead to a job, rather than ones they could simply complete.

We’ve introduced traineeships, for those who are not quite ready for work – extended work experience to give a better immersion in real workplaces – and want everyone to carry on learning maths and English to age 18 if they haven’t achieved a GCSEs by age 16.

We’re reforming qualifications to meet the needs of employers, and in December we confirmed the first tech levels – advanced qualifications marking out the skills that an 18 year-old needs to enter work in any given subject area.

While accountability will be more consistent across different types of institution.

And on the participation age - where Butler aimed, we are delivering. From 2015, every child will be in education or training – whether in school, an apprenticeship, or work – right up to 18. We’ve committed funding to make that happen – spending over £7 billion on 16-17 year olds alone this year.

Now, there are some who say that children are either academic, or not – you’re either for academic education, or you’re against. And so restoring rigour lets them down.

This is patronising, and wrong.

Because only by demanding rigour in vocational education do we offer truly equal choices to young people.

Only by demanding rigour can they gain meaningful, valuable skills.

Only by demanding responsiveness can we offer employers the workforce they need.

Rigour and responsiveness: only by insisting on it, can we can ever live up to the promise made, 70 years ago this week.

And think about institutions

But we need to think about institutions, too.

And in particular, colleges.

For too long, they were seen as delivery arms of the state.

The vast majority of colleges receive a large proportion of their funding from the taxpayer.

But the vast majority of adult training spending is by the private sector.

That’s enough to tell us too many have a nineties mindset as outdated as Britpop and the millennium bug – of passive deference towards the centre.

Employers will only value training when the training is valuable.

So colleges – and vocational education – will only be high-status when they look outwards.

I’ve met many great colleges. That look outwards to their students and business community – not upwards to central government. That see themselves as leaders – rather than waiting for central diktat to organise them.

That see themselves as social enterprises.

That’s what we want to see.

So get out there and sell your talents.

Not to ministers – but to students, parents, and businesses – and more than anyone, to employers.

A new generation of elite institutions

And I am delighted to announce that from this year, we will plan a new generation of elite vocational institutions.

Like the Manufacturing Training Centre, in Coventry.

We are investing £18 million on a new facility, developing the most cutting-edge skills for advanced engineering.

It will provide advanced, 4-year apprenticeships in areas like automation, additive layering, laser machining. It will offer international placements with the best engineering firms – and support graduates to become chartered engineers, and ultimately go on to develop their own products and companies.

Or the HS2 college, announced just the other week.

HS2 should create some 2,000 apprenticeships. That’s a huge opportunity for our young people – and for Britain to become a world leader in infrastructure. So the college will provide the very best training in rail engineering, environmental science and construction – to take advantage.

Or a new nuclear college.

In the next 20 years, some £930 billion will be spent across the world on new reactors – and £250 billion on decommissioning old ones. In Britain alone, 40,000 jobs could be created.

So the new college will build on the industry’s work – and provide the specialist, advanced skills to meet that demand – and then sell that expertise to the world.

Which share same commitment to excellence

These are new institutions, sharing some guiding principles.

They’re industry-led. Their training is directly tied to the needs of employers in strategic, high-value industries. And they’re financed by government and employers working in partnership.

They’re independent. They are autonomous, ambitious organisations – that take responsibility for their own future, and for their students’.

But most important of all - they’re excellent.

Just like the best existing colleges – they aim to be the top. Not just in the country – but in the world. To become renowned and recognised for an exceptional, elite education.

That’s obviously good for the individuals who attend.

But it also helps the wider reputation of vocational education.

By growing and nurturing these elite centres – adding them to the hard work and quality that already exists - we can win over hearts and minds for the whole system.

Think about the academic elite. Universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial – their success is good for the entire HE sector. It drives up standards. It draws researchers and students to the UK. It prompts other institutions to refine their offer to students. It commands prestige and cachet for all universities.

And they’re valued by employers – because the education they give is valuable.

Now remember the Alan Bennett play and film, ‘The History Boys’.

It follows a group of pupils, working and joking their way into Oxford to study history.

Last year, this play about this one university – this one elite institution – was voted the nation’s favourite.

Doesn’t that say so much about our culture?

Getting an apprenticeship with Rolls Royce is already as competitive as getting into Oxbridge.

So imagine if our best vocational institutions – existing and new – won the same treatment as Oxford gets in ‘The History Boys’.

If that image of teenagers running downstairs to rip open offer letters – teachers crying with pride at their achievements – parents happy but sad to drive them across the country for that first exciting day – just imagine if all that applied to vocational education.

That would be a huge change.

And that’s what elite colleges aim to lead.

Just as important, they will also start to break down the barriers between higher and further education.

They blur the lines. They take on students from a relatively young age, but go right up to post-graduate level.

And that makes perfect sense, in their industries.

In engineering, taking students up from basic principles to high-end machine work – where does academic start, and technical end?

In nuclear work, beginning with basic physics – and going up to complex, enormous projects – where does academic start, and technical end?

It’s easy to talk about parity of esteem.

These institutions will, in time, make it more than a nice phrase.

They will make it a living reality – a fact of life in the aspirations and hopes of our young people.


With our reforms, and the energy and commitment of all those in further education, we can see a new, emerging landscape.

Our reforms are already increasing respect for vocational education. Trust in qualifications is already rising. There are many great colleges and courses and companies out there.

There’s a long way to go yet.

But things are moving in the right direction.

This month, 70 years ago, Parliament passed a famous bill.

It aimed for equality between vocational and academic education.

We might be living once more in a time of change – of coalition – of tight budgets.

But with rigour and responsiveness – and led by our best institutions – with a new generation of elite colleges – I hope that in 70 years, people say vocational education got the future it deserves.

Show more