Further Education is said to be a "Cinderella" sector. Yet nearly four million adults and young people rely on further education colleges to improve their vocational and academic skills. We cannot afford to neglect those students in our drive to improve public services.
This Government has funded improvements in colleges over the last four years. We have reformed the inspection system, tackled failure and supported beacon colleges. We have also embarked on a radical improvement of adult basic skills, in which colleges play a key role.
Today, we publish our plans to encourage colleges to play to their strengths. We aim to see half of all further education colleges having at least one "centre of vocational excellence" within three years. This drive echoes our school reforms, where we are expanding specialist schools. Our approach to schools extends to colleges in other ways too: we want to see the right mix of pressure and support in both sectors. There have been weaknesses in too many colleges for too long. Inspectors are identifying those problems that need to be tackled urgently.
Just as we tackle failure, we should also celebrate and spread success. With today's prospectus from the Learning and Skills Council, we are also naming 16 pathfinder Centres of Vocational Excellence.
The right skills are in great demand in the construction industry, yet too often standards of training in colleges have not been good enough. So the work of Accrington and Rossendale College in Lancashire, which reaches out to local building firms and offers flexible access to its craft courses, deserves recognition as a pathfinder.
Increasingly in the modern, high skills economy, the best colleges need to offer the highest standards in advanced level courses. South Tyneside college in South Shields has developed an international reputation for its nautical science and marine engineering courses – and it deserves to be a centre of excellence not just in the North East but for the country as a whole.
Other centres to be named today range from a Hospitality and Catering specialism in Lancaster and Morecambe College – vital to reviving the Lake District's tourism industry as the region recovers from the effects of foot and mouth – to cutting edge photographic and animation skills at Bournemouth's Arts Institute. Business, computing, engineering and childcare expertise will be fostered in other colleges.
All these centres recognise the need to provide the best both for their students and for industry. In doing so, they play an essential economic role while giving individuals the skills they need to enable them to find work in a fast-changing jobs market. These pathfinders, which start in September, will inspire and support the development of further centres. Colleges will be invited to propose further centres and the network will start next April.
I want to see these Pathfinder Centres sharing their expertise with other colleges, including with those offering similar courses in need of improvement.
Employers will have a vital role in working with colleges to develop the right degree of innovation and flexibility to meet their needs. This is as important in updating the skills of those already working as it is in training people for new jobs. Those colleges that become centres of excellence must also ensure that their lecturers regularly update their own skills, so that they are in touch with rapidly changing technological developments
Last week's announcement of our plans for new foundation degrees was one part of our bid to ensure that people in Britain have the technical and vocational expertise that is so vital to our future competitiveness. Today's plans are an equally important part of that drive.
A vital element of our schools reform programme will be the greater participation of 14 to 19-year-old young people in college-based vocational courses. For many youngsters, these will lead on to apprenticeships and careers. It is vital, therefore, that each centre devotes significant effort and resources to improving the work-related curriculum for young people, as well as delivering excellent vocational training for adults, so that the vocational route is no longer seen as second best.
This Government is investing record amounts in further education – £759m extra, a real terms increase of 16 per cent over two years. It is important that our investment is matched by reform – and this new £100m programme will spearhead this reform.
I hope that the new Centres of Vocational Excellence will not only promote the best that our colleges can offer, but will also help to improve further education as a whole – so that we no longer regard it as an after-thought.
The writer is the Secretary of State for Education and Skills