1 Apr 2024

Further Education & Apprenticeships Monthly News Round-Up: March 2024

Welcome to Bridgehead Education's third monthly news roundup of 2024, that explores and analyses trends in the coverage of "further education" and "apprenticeship(s)" in the UK media landscape throughout March.

Welcome to Bridgehead Education's third monthly news roundup of 2024, that explores and analyses trends in the coverage of "further education" and "apprenticeship(s)" in the UK media landscape throughout March.

In March, there were 2,099 mentions of either "further education" or "apprenticeship(s)" in the UK media, an 18 per cent increase on mentions in the month of February, a result of increased focus on the sector after both the Spring budget and the announcement of wider reforms to the apprenticeship system announced on the 18th of March.

Last month's figures are also a 35 per cent increase on mentions in March of 2023. 

The chart below plots the mentions of "further education" and "apprenticeship(s)" in the media over the last twelve months.

Early announcements
March kicked off with some positive funding news for the FE and skills sector. FE Week reported on the Treasury’s announcement of a £3,000-per apprentice top up for 13 ‘growth sector’ apprenticeships across the country. The chosen standards included laboratory technican, science manufacturing technician, and nuclear technician.
The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, hoped the scheme would increase the number of apprentices in “key growth areas where there are shortages”.
The Spring Budget

Following shortly after this news came the Spring Budget, on March 6. In weeks prior, the sector had called on the Chancellor to introduce various measures aimed at alleviating pressures on the sector in some areas and driving up uptake and quality in others.
When the budget arrived, many criticised the lack of any substantial measures directed towards the further education sector. David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said that the Chancellor had “missed another opportunity to back his quest for economic growth by investing in the skills which will drive it.”
Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the budget “failed to support schools, colleges, trusts and the children and young people they serve”. Nicola Hay MBE, Director of Apprenticeship Strategy and Policy at BPP, said the Chancellor had “not addressed the UK’s ongoing skills shortages”.
Mark Bremner, CEO of Ofsted Outstanding training provider MBKB, contributed a deep-dive opinion piece to FE Week, in which he called on the government to make several key changes to apprenticeships across the country. These included a scrapping of the co-funding requirements for SMEs, a liberalising of the use of levy funds to include more effective incentives for employee upskilling, and reform to minimum duration requirements.
Government Announces Reforms
On the 18th of March, the government responded to these calls.
The prime minister announced a package of reforms headlined by a £60 million investment to enable up to 20,000 more apprenticeships, including for young people and small businesses.
Individual reforms were specifically targeted at small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), and included an increase in the amount of funding that levy-paying employers could transfer other businesses, from 25 per cent of levy funds to 50 per cent. Alongside this was a removal of co-funding requirements for apprentices in SMEs up to the age of 21, and a planned uplift in the threshold of the number of employees required to qualify as an SME from 250 to 500.
A government statement said that the change would “help SMEs hire more apprentices by reducing costs… and unlocking more opportunities for young people”.
Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy at the AELP, said that, whilst the packages were “very welcome”, that they would like to “see an end to co-investment for all-age apprenticeships”. Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute, called for “wider change to the apprenticeship system” to reverse recent decline, focused on opportunities for young people at lower level qualifications.
Targeted Funding
Shortly after these announcements, the Office for Students shared the results of the second wave of funding from its £40 million degree apprenticeships expansion fund, aimed at “increasing equality of opportunity for students into and during” apprenticeships.
Just over £2 million of the £14 million total was allocated to further education colleges, of which the majority was awarded to Weston College, awarded almost £1.2 milloin to grow ten of its degree apprenticeship programmes including manufacturing engineer, aerospace engineer, and social worker. The University of Derby received more than £1.2 million to support a variety of degree apprenticeships including nuclear scientist and engineer, and diagnostic radiographer.

Ministerial Change

In the final week of the month, Skills and Apprenticeships Minister Robert Halfon MP announced his resignation and intention to stand down as MP for Harlow before the next general election.

He had served as the Minister since 2022, and had previously held the role between 2016 and 2017. In an exit interview with FE Week, Halfon said: "my first political speech in 2010 was about apprenticeships, and my last political speech - whenever that might be - will be on apprenticeships and skills. I'm actually determined that's the case."

Tributes from the sector arrived shortly after, with a number of industry leaders "saddened" and "sorry" to hear of Halfon's resignation.

Baker Dearing Educational Trust's Lord Baker described Halfon as a "continuous and tremendous supporter of technical education". Faiza Khan MBE, a Director at City & Guilds, thanked the parting minister for his "unwavering support for FE and apprenticeships".

Natspec's Clare Howard, commenting on Halfon's departure, called on the replacement minister, announced later in the day as Luke Hall MP, to address "disjointed" policymaking for specialist further education to ensure that SEND and FE policy is adequately joined-up in a "cohesive" policy approach. Howard elaborated more on these arguments in an opinion piece for FE Week, calling for a "clear ministerial brief" for the specialist further education sector. 

Top Stories

Below are our top 5 FE and skills news stories of March.

FE Week - Vote winning apprenticeship reforms go begging

"The spring budget may have been the last substantial fiscal policy event this side of the upcoming general election. Sadly, further education was alarmingly absent from the policy changes on offer. Some 200 new apprenticeship places a year for British film and a £50 million pilot for apprenticeships in the advanced manufacturing, green and life sciences sectors are far from the fundamental reform we need."

FE Week - Exit interview with Robert Halfon MP

"The sector was rocked on Tuesday by the sudden resignation of skills, apprenticeships, and higher education minister Robert Halfon.

The lifelong Tolkien fan signed off on fourteen years championing further education, particularly apprenticeships, in parliament invoking the wizard Gandalf: “My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help … among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.”"

FE Week - Specialist FE should have clear ministerial brief

"Whenever the election takes place, it is essential that the next government take a more coordinated approach to specialist FE. Clear lines of responsibility are needed to truly support young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)."

BBC - Sunak pledges to create 20,000 more apprenticeships

"Rishi Sunak is promising to create up to 20,000 more apprenticeships with a series of reforms including fully funding training for young people and cutting red tape for small businesses. The government will pay the full cost of apprenticeships for people aged 21 or under at small firms from 1 April. To enable this, it is pledging £60m of new investment for next year."

fe news - sector responds to Spring budget

“The Chancellor missed another opportunity today to back his quest for economic growth by investing in the skills which will drive it. The lack of much-needed funding for colleges in today’s spring budget will mean skills shortages will continue to hamper employers who are struggling to find the skilled people they need to grow."

Share your details and we’ll be in touch