“Learning matters because it changes lives,” John Hayes remarks. His enthusiasm for education is clear throughout the conversation but he also warns that falling behind in skills will hold back the UK’s economic recovery. Visiting Northern Ireland for the first time, he has just addressed the Institute of Careers Guidance’s conference.
As education is devolved, Hayes’ remit covers England and also representing the UK in meetings with skills ministers from other national governments.
The 2006 Leitch report found that, out of 30 OECD countries, the UK ranked 17th on low skills, 20th on intermediate skills and 11th on high skills. Hayes emphasises that unless skills gaps are
filled: “Britain will struggle to succeed, to compete internationally. Frankly, our only chance to succeed will be to be a high tech, high skills economy.”
Under the spending review, an extra £250 million has been allocated for apprenticeships in England; the 2010- 2011 budget for this work now stands at £557 million.
Apprenticeships represent a “great vehicle” to build practical skills while further education colleges are the “engine room” where that can take place. Those colleges are “the great unheralded triumph of our education system” and, along with other providers, are training the “technicians of tomorrow.”
“They have an immense role to play and already do incredible work,” Hayes says of colleges. “Further education colleges not only provide a vehicle for the teaching of all kinds of academic subjects. They also are the principal route by which people gain learning opportunities through informal learning and community learning.”
However, in England, he has found their work has been held back by bureaucracy. “We need to set them free to innovate so they can excel,” Hayes adds.
For inspiration, he looks back to Rab Butler’s idea of learning for democratic citizenship, outlined in the 1943 white paper. This concept means “allowing people to enjoy learning for the changes it makes to their lives, their outlook, their sense of satisfaction, their feelings of achievement, which both individually and collectively build a sense of worth.”
This sense of worth can be experienced at an individual, communal and national level.
“We certainly wouldn’t want learning to be entirely utilitarian,” he comments, adding that practical learning can combine both “beauty and utility” even in software development and advanced engineering.
“When someone can learn to make and do things,” Hayes surmises, “their sense of value changes and others value them more too.”
Career in brief
John Hayes graduated with a BA in politics and a PGCE in history and English from Nottingham University, before going into business. While working as director of a software company, The Database Ltd, he also sat on Nottinghamshire County Council for 14 years.
Hayes was elected MP for South Holland and The Deepings, in Lincolnshire, in 1997.
As Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, he works across the Departments for Business and Education.
Married with two sons, his interests include painting, architecture, English literature and boxing.