InTuition taster: Robert Halfon Q&A

The government has made overhauling further and vocational education a priority. In an exclusive interview, Robert Halfon, minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, talks apprenticeships, T Levels and what needs to happen to recruit and retain staff.

Image credit | UK Parliament is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Image credit | UK Parliament is licensed under CC BY 3.0

You’re now over six months into the job. What have been your priorities during this time?

My mission as minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education (HE) is to enable everyone, no matter their age or background, to climb the ‘ladder of opportunity’ to reach good jobs and high earning power.

This begins with high-quality careers advice, so young people can make informed choices about their future. As they climb the rungs, they gain the skills employers are looking for, whether that is through T Levels, apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications, a university degree, or one of our free adult skills courses. This isn’t just about getting off to a good start when you leave school – I want people to be able to continue to learn throughout their lifetime.

My priorities since starting at the Department for Education have been to ensure the quality of apprenticeships at all levels, and to improve apprenticeship achievements. This includes boosting degree apprenticeships, which offer ambitious learners a fantastic opportunity to reap the benefits of both an apprenticeship and a traditional degree.

Lastly, I want to transform careers advice so that young people and adults alike understand that technical education is a viable pathway to a successful career, and it gains the same high esteem as HE.


You’ve previously been a big supporter of apprenticeships. Why is this and how do you think the system could be improved?

Apprenticeships offer opportunity to individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Apprentices get on-the-job training in a huge range of careers, from classic vocational paths like construction to professions like law and healthcare, or even new industries like tech and video game design. Not only that, but apprentices earn while they learn, so these career paths are open to people from a wider range of backgrounds who might not otherwise feel able to afford education or training.

We are increasing investment in apprenticeships to £2.7 billion by 2024-25 and have removed the limit to the number of apprentices that SMEs can take on, making it easier for them to grow their businesses with the skilled apprentices they need.

However, there’s always more we can do. That’s why we are making up to £40 million available over the next two years to encourage HE providers to expand their degree apprenticeship offers. Before students even step foot in university, this will help fund careers advice to highlight the benefits a degree apprenticeship can bring to their future career.

We’re also enabling more care leavers to take up apprenticeships by increasing the apprenticeship care leavers’ bursary from £1,000 to £3,000, from August this year. This is on top of the £1,000 that goes to employers and providers who support care-leaver apprentices.


You often discuss degree apprenticeships. Why is this, and what needs to be done to encourage more people to consider them?

I often say that degree apprenticeships are two of my favourite words in the English language, because they combine the best of the academic and vocational routes. Studying while doing paid work gives students from all backgrounds the opportunity to gain hands-on experience, while securing a degree without any student debt. All with the prospect of a great job at the end of it.

Since their introduction in 2014-15, 179,500 students have started a degree-level apprenticeship and, despite the impact of the pandemic, the number of starts increased by 10 per cent last year.

More still needs to be done, however. I want universities that do not currently offer degree apprenticeships to consider doing so and to ensure that all students understand this option and its remarkable benefits. That’s why I was pleased to confirm that the Office for Students will establish a £40 million fund to encourage HE providers to expand their degree apprenticeships and improve access to them.

Adult education remains as important as ever, particularly as a way to redistribute social capital


How do you see these interacting with T Levels?

T Levels are a key rung on the ladder of opportunity for young people, which is why we will be investing up to £500 million every year once they are fully rolled out. We are backing providers by making around £400 million available to improve buildings and buy state-of-the-art equipment.

Last year, the first cohort saw over 400 students secure places on HE courses in education and training, computing, architecture, building and planning, and social sciences. T Levels make great preparation for apprenticeships at other levels too. In many cases, the knowledge and skills developed during a T Level can be recognised as prior learning, resulting in an accelerated apprenticeship.

Ensuring that more HE institutions embed T Level entry requirements into their admissions process is key to linking degree level apprenticeships with T Levels. Over 130 institutions have now confirmed that they will consider T Levels for entry into HE in 2023, but we need to make T Level students aware of the courses open to them and the standards they need to meet.

High-quality careers advice is crucial to counteracting outdated perceptions of technical education passed down to students while they are still in school. Our Apprenticeships Support and Knowledge (ASK) programme also empowers schools to make students aware of the benefits of apprenticeships.

We have also invested £300 million to create 21 Institutes of Technology, which are situated across the country. These bring education and business closer together, encouraging collaboration between colleges, universities and industries to create unique partnerships. These alliances deliver the technical skills that local businesses need, both now and in the future.


Adult education is also vital in the wake of the pandemic. How do the Skills Bootcamps help, and what role does the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) play here?

Adult education remains as important as ever, particularly as a way to redistribute social capital. For me, it’s made up of five pillars: community learning, careers advice, adult learning for jobs, the LLE and skills devolution.

Community learning plays a vital role in helping adults of all ages and backgrounds gain skills, confidence and motivation. I have seen this in practice in my own constituency of Harlow, where community education was moved to the local library, which became a state-of-the-art centre for adult learning.

We offer a range of fully funded courses for adults to boost their employment prospects. These include Skills Bootcamps – specialised training that links learners directly to their chosen industry. These free, flexible courses of sector-specific skills last up to four months, with a job interview offered on completion. They have the potential to transform the skills landscape for employers seeking career-changers, but who currently can’t get the staff. Uptake has been strong, and we are investing an additional £34 million to expand Bootcamps in the 2024-25 financial year, building on the existing investment of up to £550 million from 2022 to 2025.

We also offer free courses for jobs, which provide learners with sought-after skills, and courses in essential numeracy, literacy and digital capabilities.

The LLE is coming in 2025 and will be key to ensuring that people can continue to learn and upskill at any stage in life. The LLE will transform the student finance system, empowering more people to study alongside other commitments, like childcare, caring or work.

I often say that degree apprenticeships are two of my favourite words in the English language


What are you doing to support the further education (FE) sector and ensuring that it genuinely delivers?

The FE sector is doing remarkable work providing a world-class technical education to young people and adults across the country. But there’s always more we can do to support our brilliant colleges, employers and training providers.

In the 2021 Spending Review we announced a £1.6 billion uplift in funding for 16-19 provision in 2024-25 (compared with 2021-22). We’ve given an additional £53 million to FE colleges in 2022-23 to support them to improve their energy efficiency, and a further £150 million to make adjustments following the ONS reclassification of the sector.

This is on top of the £2.8 billion investment in skills capital that was announced at the last Spending Review. This funding will improve the FE estate and support the roll-out of Institutes of Technology and new qualifications such as T Levels.

I want to reassure FE colleges and providers that these funding commitments remain in place. I will continue to work with them to understand how we can help to build a skills and apprenticeships nation.


What needs to be done to attract people into teaching in the FE sector, and ensure they remain there?

To get more talented people teaching in FE, we need to communicate the wealth of benefits that teaching your trade can bring. These include the opportunity to inspire the next generation, reinvigorating your passion for your subject, and staying at the forefront of industry developments.

Our ‘Teach in FE’ campaign delivers simple, accessible information and comprehensive support for prospective teachers. In the last 12 months, the campaign website received 300,000 visitors, and response to the advertising from our target audience has been positive.

In January we announced a funding boost to support the additional costs of recruiting and retaining FE teachers in construction, manufacturing, engineering and digital subject areas. For people looking to earn while they train on-the-job, there is also a learning and skills teacher apprenticeship programme, which provides high-quality work-based training. We also offer tax-free bursaries of up to £29,000 to support people training to teach in-demand subjects like tech. We have also recently launched the latest round of Taking Teaching Further – the government’s flagship FE teacher recruitment programme, which has supported around 1,000 industry experts to retrain as FE teachers. In addition to providing a teaching qualification, mentoring support and a reduced teaching timetable, the latest round includes the piloting of a new financial incentive worth £6,000 per eligible recruit, targeted at those teaching in the most hard-to-fill subjects.


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Image credit: UK Parliament is licensed under CC BY 3.0