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Gavin Williamson ditches Tony Blair-era target to get 50% of kids into university as he vows major overhaul of further education

The Education Secretary vowed to ‘stand for the forgotten 50%’ who do not go to university. (PA)

5 min read

The Government is dropping a flagship Tony Blair-era promise to get 50% of children into university in favour of a major overhaul of colleges and apprenticeships, Gavin Williamson has announced.

The Education Secretary said that for too long Britain’s education system had ignored the “forgotten 50% who choose another path”.

And Gavin Williamson confirmed that the Government would jettison the 1999 New Labour goal of getting half of all kids into university education in favour of a "German-style" shake-up of further education.

In a speech to the Social Market Foundation, Mr Williamson said: “FE stands for Further Education but for too long it may as well have stood for Forgotten Education.

“I don’t accept this absurd mantra, that if you are not part of the 50% of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short. You have become one of the forgotten 50% who choose another path."

He added: “It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really, they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment.

"Especially when the evidence demonstrates that further education can open the doors to greater opportunity, better prospects and transform lives.”

The Education Secretary said the number of adult learners in further education had “plummeted” from 3.1m to 2.1m since the year 2000, with a “systemic decline” in technical qualifications in favour of degrees.

Successive governments had, he warned, “failed to give further education the investment it deserves” — with “limits to what can be achieved by sending ever more people to university”.

“When Tony Blair uttered that 50% target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50%,” Mr Williamson added.

“It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose.”


In a bid to tackle the perceived mismatch, Mr Williamson said the Government would be publishing a new White Paper in the Autumn, setting out plans for a “world-class, German-style further education system in Britain”.

He added: “This will not be about incremental change, but a comprehensive plan to change the fundamentals of England’s further education landscape, inspired by the best models from around the world.”

The plan will, the Education Secretary promised, focus on creating “high quality qualifications” based on standards set by employers.

“All apprenticeships starts will be based on those standards from August this year and we will be looking to place such standards at the heart of our whole technical education system,” he vowed.

Meanwhile the Government pledged to curb the “ridiculous” number of further qualifications available with a review to “simplify the system so that young people and adults can have a simpler and consistently high-quality set of choices, with a clear line of sight to study at higher levels“.

“Qualifications which no-one takes, or that are poor quality, look likely to go in their thousands,” he said.

“Later this year, we will set out a detailed plan for the implementation of this reform.”

Mr Williamson said: “No longer can we persist in the view that university is the silver bullet for everyone and everything. 

“The revolution and need for change is long overdue. Education’s purpose is to unlock an individual’s potential so they can get the job and career that they crave. 

“If it fails to do that then education itself has let them down. Today I have laid down a marker for change. A commitment to stand for the forgotten 50%.”


The Education Secretary’s vow has been welcomed by the Association of Colleges, with chief executive David Hughes saying the UK’s current system “simply does not support the half of adults who don’t get the chance to study at higher levels”.

“For too long, we’ve been fixated on a target set in a different era, by a different leader, when the needs of the country were vastly different,” he said.

“The 50% target felt right then and has now been achieved. It’s time to move on to a more ambitious target, one which recognises that the world has changed and the needs of the country and of its citizens have changed.”

But higher education lobbying group Universities UK said “it would be a mistake to view post-18 education as a binary choice between supporting either higher education or further education”.

The group’s chief executive Alistair Jarvis said: “Both universities and colleges have important and mutually supporting roles to meet skills needs in the post Covid-19 economic recovery. 

“The benefits of universities and colleges are felt in local communities across the UK, increasing social mobility, creating jobs and supporting local businesses.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said it backed Mr Williamson’s view that “FE colleges and apprenticeships play a vital role in the education and training of young people”.

“The devil of course will be in the detail and we will need to see what is in the White Paper in September,” she added.

“For any system to work it will have to be properly funded and pay needs to be brought up to the levels of the broader education profession. 

“A chronic lack of funding for FE colleges and lack of employer participation in providing high quality apprenticeships has ill served  young people taking this educational route and needs to be urgently addressed."

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