Over the last few weeks in Parliament there have been a couple of statements regarding STEM and Further Education issues. They are vital matters as up until now our STEM provision in this country has been heavily supplemented from visitors and residents coming in from the EU. The first statement came during a debate in the House of Commons on 21st January on the subject of College Funding with an opening statement by Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP for Cambridge which ended with the sentence “I shall start by asking the Minister a simple question: why? Why are 17 and 18-year-olds in colleges and sixth forms worth so much less than younger pupils or university students?”
The responses to this which came from Anne Milton at the end of the debate included these comments “I know that Ofsted has raised concerns about the financial stability of the sector and how finances constrain what FE colleges and sixth-form colleges can do … further education has been left behind, not just in terms of finance but through the domination of the higher education sector, which has crowded out any conversation about further education and how crucial it is. .… As a country, we cannot afford not to adequately fund the education of 50% of the population to ensure we have the skills we need. On a very personal level, it is about social mobility, community growth and the fact that everyone deserves a chance…..I reassure Members that I will take the issues away and continue to champion FE as we prepare for the spending review.”
One of the other contributors to the debate was Stephen Lloyd, the MP for Eastbourne who stated “Robert Halfon reminded us that funding has been going down in real terms for the past 10 years. That is one of the reasons why today’s debate is so well attended… Funding has been frozen for various historical reasons…. someone teaching A-levels at an FE college, such as the Eastbourne campus of East Sussex College in my constituency, will on average be earning £7,000 less per annum than someone teaching GCSEs at one of the excellent local secondary schools down the road. I beg the Government to understand and appreciate that that is not sustainable.”
For Anne to now claim she is championing the FE sector including its funding simply reveals that she and her predecessors have not done the job competently. She has been in the post for 2 years, Robert Halfon was in post for a year, Nick Boles was in the post for two years and Matt Hancock for a year. Although FE colleges are not the only place where STEM subjects are taught, they are a vital element in that respect and the fact that they have been underfunded for so long explains why we have so many challenges.
Following on from this debate just over a week later a question that Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock, Stephen Metcalfe had asked “what steps the Government is taking to increase the supply of laboratory scientist technicians” was answered by Anne Milton on 29th January. Her response included the opening sentence “The government wants to encourage more students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and training at all stages from primary school to higher education” and she then explained how £406m is available for schools to improve maths and digital technology teaching followed by “We have committed to improving STEM careers advice in schools in the government’s careers strategy….by updating school and college statutory guidance.” Clearly guidance will not improve things very much. Then “The Department for BEIS also funds a number of programmes that aim to inspire more young people to study science subjects, such as the STEM Ambassadors programme” which is a programme I am part of, but which depends extensively on voluntary support from companies, many of which right now are struggling to keep their businesses profitable in the light of the lack of clarity in the Brexit nonsense that Anne and her team are responsible for. The rest of Anne’s response was talking about the jam that will be available tomorrow or later on in the Century: “T levels will also provide alternative routes into laboratory and science technical careers…..will be taught by selected providers from 2021…Apprenticeships are being developed by employer groups…. We are carrying out a review of higher technical education…our ambition is to reform higher level technical education….We intend to establish a system of employer-led national standards for higher technical education” The reality is that this is far too little and far too late bearing in mind the problems that Anne and Matt need to resolve for our nation.