16 May 2024

EXIT INTERVIEW: The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP on his tenure and the future of FE and Skills

The sudden resignation of Robert Halfon on 26 March shook the FE and skills sector as he decided to stand down at the next general election following 14 years as an MP and nine as a Minister. This month, we interview Mr Halfon to reflect on his time in the Department for Education and look ahead as he passes the FE and skills baton to incoming Minister, Luke Hall.

Looking back on your tenure, what do you consider your most significant achievement in the area of skills, apprenticeships and FE?

As a backbencher and twice minister, my ambition has been to change the culture around skills, FE and apprenticeships. It used to be called the Cinderella sector, but I have done all I can to banish the two ugly step sisters of snobbery and underfunding. As the Minister, I was proud to work with DfE officials on the Skills for Life Campaign and the Careers One Stop Shop. I also brought in the legislation to establish IFATE and the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, meaning people will be able to train and retrain by completing long or short courses throughout their careers.

I am also proud of what was done for social mobility. I tripled the bursary for care leavers starting apprenticeships from £1,000 to £3,000, launched a mentoring programme for apprentices with learning difficulties and disabilities, and reduced the requirements to secure English and maths qualifications for those who may struggle to do so, removing this barrier to further education.

For those who know me, ‘degree apprenticeships’ are my two favourite words in the English dictionary. We’ve invested a further £40 million to expand the uptake of degree apprenticeships and, more generally, apprenticeship starts are on the up with 750,000 people now completing apprenticeships each year compared to less than half a million in 2010. Over 60 per cent of apprenticeship starts are people under the age of 25, helping them to start their career and climb the ladder of opportunity, and the completion rate has shot up by 22 per cent in the last year.

As a backbencher in Parliament, I was the first MP to employ a full time apprentice in my House of Commons office. Over the last fourteen years, I have had 6 remarkable apprentices - the most recent is now Leader of Harlow Council and is the youngest council leader in political history.

I have been glad to travel thousands of miles from Cumbria to Cornwall and Basingstoke to Ipswich meeting extraordinary apprentices, seeing amazing FE colleges and witnessing first hand some incredible training providers.

What have been your greatest challenges while Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education?

In recent years, we have led a massive culture shift in the skills sector. Our education system has always been weighted to traditional academic pathways. There must be parity of esteem between technical and vocational routes. Too few businesses prioritise upskilling their staff - in fact, only 52 per cent of workers in the UK say they have received employer-supported training at work, compared to 70 per cent in Germany and 73.5 per cent in Italy.

Employers must invest in their workforce and support early career candidates - this includes T Level industry placements, apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships. That’s why the Government is incentivising employer investment through £60 million to support SMEs to take on more apprentices, £50 million to increase apprenticeships within growth sectors and £40 million to boost the uptake of degree apprentices.

During my time as Minister, the cap on the number of apprentices an SME can employ was removed, the bursary for care leavers tripled from £1,000 to £3,000, and increased the apprenticeship minimum wage by over 21 per cent. We are also funding 100 per cent of training and assessment costs for new apprentices aged 16-21 in SMEs and have doubled the transfer allowance so levy-paying employers can now transfer up to 50 per cent of their funds.

As you hand over your responsibilities to Luke Hall MP, what do you believe should be the top priority for advancing skills, apprenticeships, and HE, and what advice would you give him?

Luke Hall will be a brilliant minister and needs no advice from me.

A huge part of the role of Skills Minister is about delivery and continuing to reduce red tape and over-regulation, particularly around small business and independent providers. In the Department, I had a code name of ‘Operation Machete’ which was about reducing red tape and enabling providers to focus on what matters most. I hope the machete is being sharpened! 

One priority should be Adult Community Education. Adult community learning is often misunderstood. It is vital that support for this sector is continued.  All adult learning, whether it is community learning or Skills Bootcamps and Free Courses for Jobs, often provide the first ladder to reach the ladder of opportunity. It is adult community learning (what is now termed as tailored learning) that makes a huge difference to not just education but also mental health and wellbeing. 

What do you see as being the biggest challenges facing FE and Skills in 2024?

There is always a question about resources and funding; however, we have achieved a lot in recent months to turn the tide on this problem. Despite economic challenges, the sector, led by the Secretary of State, secured new money:

  • Apprenticeship funding to increase to £2.7 billion by 2024/25.

  • £110 million of new money in the last six months alone - (£50 million for growth sectors and £60 million for SMEs to take on more apprentices in addition to the removal of the cap).

  • Extra £40 million to expand degree apprenticeships.

  • Investing £3.8 billion more in further education and skills in this Parliament.

  • £185 million in 2023-24 and £285 million in 2024-25 to help colleges address key priorities, including the recruitment and retention of high-quality teaching staff.

  • £550 million for Skills Bootcamps.

Step by step, we are building a skills nation where young people will enter the workforce ready for the jobs of the future and everybody, regardless of age, will be able to upskill and progress their careers. But our work cannot stop here. The Apprenticeship Levy must be protected, and work with SMEs must continue, to ensure the number of apprenticeship starts and completions continues to increase. We must also do whatever it takes to deliver the Advanced British Standards which, for the first time, will put technical and vocational education on an equal footing with more traditional routes.  

What changes, if any, do you think should be made to the apprenticeship levy?

I am a big supporter of the Apprenticeship Levy. It is a Ronseal Levy and does what it says on the tin. In the last two financial years, 98 per cent of levy funds have been spent on training apprentices for the jobs of the future. 

Too many people say that the Apprenticeship Levy has limited the number of apprentices at Levels 2 and 3. This is simply untrue. There are now almost 700 high-quality apprenticeship standards in 70 per cent of professions, developed with over 5,000 employers. 65 per cent of apprenticeship starts this year have been at Levels 2 or 3, with Level 3 still the most popular. 60 per cent of apprentices are under the age of 25. 

Plans to dilute the Levy by using it to fund non-apprenticeship training will only reduce the number of apprentices by as much as 60 per cent compared to 2022/23. Rather than damaging the Apprenticeship Levy, I would like to see a Skills Tax Credit, like the Research and Development Tax Credit, that incentives employers to invest in their staff and to upskill their workforce. 

What more do you think could be done to better coordinate SEND policy with FE policy in Government?

Skills and apprenticeships should be a ladder for people with learning difficulties and disabilities, and those with special educational needs. The flexible approach to teaching, industry placements and hands on training can appeal to those less suited to heavy academic qualifications, knowing that they will have the same opportunities to progress their careers. 

A huge amount has been done on social justice and ensuring everybody can access high-quality further education, whatever their disability or difficulty in life. We have launched bursaries for teachers within further education who want to train to work with students with SEND. These bursaries worth between £4,000 and £9,000 to help recruit expert teachers. As Minister, I previously established a pilot mentoring scheme with Disability Rights for apprentices with learning difficulties and disabilities and I hope this will be rolled out across the rest of the country. I reduced the requirements to secure English and maths qualifications for those who may struggle to do so, removing this barrier to further education.

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