Thursday November 3, 2016
When Harlow MP Robert Halfon was appointed Minister of State at the Department for Education as part of Teresa May’s July reshuffle, he immediately tweeted his excitement at being given the apprenticeships brief. His enthusiasm is unsurprising, given his background: he is well-known for having been the first MP to employ an apprentice.
He is also former co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning; and he campaigned successfully for a 14-19 University Technical College (UTC) to be established in his constituency, specialising in computing, science and engineering.
Although it took the department three weeks to confirm his full remit - encompassing careers support for all ages as well as skills policy - he seems to have quickly worked out his own priorities.
Firstly, he sees apprenticeships, skills and careers as equally important, and impossible to view in isolation. Secondly, he has a strong focus on social mobility and for the potentially life-transforming nature of ‘technical and professional education’ (he has banned the phrase ‘vocational education’). He is quite clear that he doesn’t want apprenticeships to be the preserve of young people who would have got a good job anyway, and he will be looking at all his policies from the point of view of what they do to tackle disadvantage.
He is also an unapologetic supporter of UTCs, addressing head-on accusations that they are unviable. Unusually for a politician, he wants us to give them time to prove themselves, given that young people in England generally don’t change institution at the age of 14. Even more unusually, he suggests we judge them instead on their outcomes rather than their exam results: just five of the 1,292 students who left this year failed to go on to education, employment or training. 44% went to university and 29% started apprenticeships. Education Secretary Justine Greening has also recently expressed her enthusiasm for the UTC model, but it remains to be seen whether it can overcome entrenched cultural norms.
He is also enthusiastic about further education, which he dubbed the ‘Heineken sector’: reaching areas that others don’t reach.
He is committed to digital skills as ‘core’ alongside English and maths, and is particularly enthusiastic about the recent opening of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills in Tottenham Hale, a deprived area of north London. The college offers both sixth form studies – A levels and BTECs - and higher level apprenticeship training, and has been set up in partnership with companies including Merrill Lynch, Deloitte and IBM.
Finally, he wants to try to solve the careers support conundrum – what can government sensibly do with limited resources, and how can it “replicate good things without destroying them”? The Government has been accused by the Education Select Committee of “burying its head in the sand” on careers support, reflecting a growing frustration among educationists and business people. The long-promised careers strategy will be Mr. Halfon’s first real test when it is eventually published.
Mr. Halfon has already clashed with the opposition over apprenticeship funding, despite having changed proposals in response to concerns about young people and those in disadvantaged areas. He will also have his work cut out implementing the Government’s plans for technical education.
Robert Halfon describes himself as a ‘Ronseal politician’. In his first speech he certainly came across as straightforward and clear about his new role. We will watch his career with interest.