From education to employment

Rob Halfon shows support for lifelong learning in address to Times Education Summit

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee

Last week Robert Halfon, the Minister of Skills, discussed ongoing initiatives to address skill gaps in the workforce. In particular, he focused on alternative learning pathways, other than academic education.

Apprenticeships and lifelong learning were included in his speech, with plans to increase support for these initiatives further by increasing funding to £2.7 billion by 2024-25.

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon, delivered a speech to the Times Education Summit.

Good morning, and thank you for that introduction.

I was honoured to be asked to take part in the Times Education Commission in 2021, to consider questions such as the purpose of education, and how it should interact with social and economic institutions. I returned to government last autumn, to discover there was still quite a lot of work to be done! But it was also gratifying to see reforms from my first term as Skills Minister bearing fruit, some of which support elements of the Commission’s recommendations. As I will describe, we are now getting serious about technical education to 18, with the continuing roll-out of T Levels. And I am determined that pupils will have earlier and earlier opportunities to see industries and occupations up close. They need to understand the world of work as something to build towards, rather than encounter it abruptly at the end of their schooling.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge admirer of JRR Tolkien.

The best known Tolkien apprentice is of course Samwise Gamgee, an apprentice gardener in Lord of the Rings. I want to frame my thoughts using another Tolkien story that is less well known, Smith of Wootton Major.

It features a character called Alf, an apprentice who receives both good and bad training in the village of Wootton Major. Though he receives three years excellent training, when his master departs the villagers do not trust him to take over. ‘He had grown a bit taller, but still looked like a boy’ – and was not one of their own. Instead, an idle and incapable local man is appointed as Master Cook of the village, who spends his tenure taking credit for the apprentice’s work and talking down to him. Alf’s talent is wasted on absurd tasks like stoning raisins. I won’t tell the whole story, but eventually Alf assumes his rightful position and the older man has a comeuppance of sorts. Finally, Alf is revealed to have understood all along something fundamental to the nature of the office of the Master Cook, something that only the true master could have passed down to him.

What is the relevance of this story to today’s apprentices? Well, quite a lot actually. An appreciation of skills education, and how it’s perceived by those who haven’t acquired it. The skills required to become a Master Cook are underestimated by the villagers, who choose a bad trainer for Alf.

Examples of good and bad training – how an apprentice can be expertly trained in just three years, but side-lined and given little responsibility because of his obvious youth.

The tacit acknowledgement of his trainer that the apprentice has something to offer, but also reluctance that he should get the credit for their work.

It’s a good parable for modern times. For too long, the acquisition of vocational and technical skills has been undermined. It is not respected in the same way that academic education is.

I have always found this a false hierarchy. We will always want to know the names and types of fishes, how they spawn and miraculously breathe through gills. But in every generation, people must also be taught how to fish.

That’s why I’ve always argued we need more skills-based post-16 education. And that is what we’re now doing.

You may have heard about my Ladder of Opportunity. It is not just a slogan but a way of thinking about what we need as a country, to create a skills system that supports people of all backgrounds up the ladder into secure and well-paid employment.

The Ladder has 2 pillars:

Opportunities and social justice, and strengthening Higher and Further education.

These aren’t just two slogans slotted into a framework. They are fundamental and interconnected.

On the one side, Higher and Further education need to do a lot more collaboration.

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which I’ll come to later, will help to bind these strands together.

Both Higher and Further education cannot be said to be truly succeeding as a meritocratic endeavour, until the opportunities they bring are distributed widely, to everyone who can make use of them – but particularly to those who need them most.

When the most disadvantaged groups in our society are finally taking-up their fair share (or more) of university courses, apprenticeships and other technical education places, that is when the system will be at its strongest – nurturing talent wherever it is found, rather than just the talents of those who happen to find it. That is when Further and Higher education can truly be said to be serving social justice.

And that is the lens through which I see all the work we’re doing to bolster skills education in this country.

The first rung on the Ladder of Opportunity is careers guidance and information. We cannot hope to change attitudes about skills education unless it is seen as a route to progression. And it needs to be considered much earlier in school than the adolescence afterthought it’s been recently. Evidence shows that pupils start to develop stereotypes that can limit their educational and occupational aspirations at a very young age. That’s why we’re funding a £2.6 million programme to target 2,250 primary schools in the most disadvantaged areas. Running until March 2025, it will inspire pupils to consider the world of work, drawing positive role models from a range of industries and sectors. The aim is to raise aspirations, challenge stereotypes, and help children link their learning to future jobs and careers. Teachers will be supported with professional development and resources to continue delivery beyond the programme.

At the same time, our ASK programme is raising older pupils’ awareness of the benefits of apprenticeships and T-levels. And through the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, we have strengthened the provider access legislation, known as the Baker Clause. We now stipulate that every school must provide pupils with a minimum of six education and training provider encounters. We are working with The Careers & Enterprise Company to support schools to comply, and will take tough action where there is persistent non-compliance.

Overall, we invested around £100 million in 2022-23 in careers provision for young people and adults. It’s money that I’m determined we will continue to spend in a focused, meaningful way.

The second rung on the Ladder of Opportunity is about championing apprenticeships and the skills employers need. Apprenticeships are at the heart of this government’s skills agenda. They are about widening the skills pipeline to drive economic growth, and bringing paid opportunities for progression to those who may not otherwise choose further training.

Our aim is that every occupation should have a quality apprenticeship attached to it. That is why we moved from apprenticeship frameworks to standards. These are carefully designed in partnership with industry, in order to truly serve their utility for the employer and their value for the apprentice. There are now accredited routes to over 660 occupations, from entry-level to expert.

To support the creation of more of these opportunities, we are increasing funding to £2.7 billion by 2024-25. In 2021-22, we spent 99.6% of the £2.5 billion apprenticeship budget handed down to us by Treasury. And despite what you may hear, it isn’t being spent on MBAs, which we removed from the Level 7 Senior Leader standard in 2021.

70% of all apprenticeship starts are at Levels 2 and 3 [2021/22 AY], and young people under the age of 25 make up more than half of all starts. But we still want older people to consider apprenticeships among their options to retrain or return to work. Hence our ‘returnerships’ initiative, announced in the Budget, to encourage adults over 50 to consider these routes back into training and employment.

Degree apprenticeships are the crown jewel within our offer. Or to Tolkien fans, the Faery star. They combine the best of vocational and academic education at some of our best universities. They hold particular value for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, giving them knowledge, training and industry insight in one complete package. That last point is particularly valuable if you lack personal connections in the area where you want to work – those invisible career foundations that you only notice if you don’t have them. Degree apprentices earn while they learn, but don’t pay tuition fees like other students. It is so important we promote these routes to those who could benefit most: young people whose social and financial position currently deters them from degree-level study.

There are now almost 160 apprenticeships offered at degree level. And contrary to what sometimes is misreported, they’re not all in management. Degree-level apprenticeships prepare students for careers in the Police, nursing, aerospace engineering – and, yes, even journalism. There have been over 185,000 starts on these prestigious courses since their introduction in 2014. They’ve made up 16% of all starts so far this year [August 2022 -Feb 2023], with numbers up 11% compared to the same period last year – building on year-on-year growth.

There is much more to do to meet rising demand – and to spread the word to build demand still further. We’re working with higher education institutions to increase both employer vacancies at degree apprenticeship level, and applications from young people. We’re providing an additional £40 million to support providers to expand degree apprenticeships over the next two years, and to help more applicants access these incredible opportunities.

While raising apprenticeship standards, we saw a gap at Level 3: a qualification to prepare students for skilled work at 18 that also provided a solid foundation for further study or training. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education worked with employers, providers and industry experts to identify what such a qualification would look like, and the different progression routes that could follow-on from it.   In 2020 we introduced T Levels, a new gold standard in technical education. These courses have a rigour gives them parity with A levels, and include a meaningful 9 week placement in industry. This reflects my belief that students should be shown the workplace well before the age of 18, to build understanding of its expectations and their own aspirations. Oldham College has been among the first to offer Supporting Adult Nursing and Supporting Midwifery T Levels, providing an incredible pipeline for the future local healthcare workforce.

We will have made £1.6 billion of extra funding available for 16-19 education by the 2024-25 Financial Year [compared to 2021-22]. This includes up to £500 million for T Levels each year, once they’re fully rolled out in 2025.

The fourth rung of the Ladder of Opportunity is lifelong learning.

So far, my focus has been on young people, and those at the beginning of a career. But the latter can of course include people who want to switch careers later on, a move we want to encourage to help the working population keep pace with the shifting labour market. To support people to study and retrain for better employment, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will unify Higher and Further education finance under a single system. From 2025, financial support equivalent to 4 years post-18 education (£37,000 in today’s fees) will be available to use over the whole course of a working life. Crucially, this can be drawn down in modular increments to build qualifications over time. This flexibility will enable older learners to fit their study around life events and daily commitments. Like getting on and off a train, they will be able to alight and board their post-school education when it suits them – building qualifications at their own pace, rather than being confined to a single ticket.

I want the Lifelong Loan Entitlement to signify an inclusive change in how we view skills education, and the pace at which we acquire education in general. The name suggests to me (as I hope it does to you) that education has no finish line. That your fate is not cast in stone by the age of 25. It may also encourage young people to get some experience of work that interests them, rather than go straight to university, in order to inform the use of their finance allowance.

And while I have great respect for the history, traditions, and academic excellence of Oxford and Cambridge, we need to get away from this obsession with using it as a benchmark for everything else. Instead of talking about the Oxbridge of skills education, people should be pointing to colleges like Loughborough, Oldham and universities like Staffordshire. They are serving students exceptionally well, fitting them for good jobs and great careers. Their degrees give students what they need to propel them up the Ladder of Opportunity. And yet they are not among the bywords for a ‘good’ education – the age-old establishments that served many of the people in this room. Those who value education on outcomes, rather than reputation, should seek to change this.

I’ll finish by returning to my favourite Oxford professor, who could write with insight about the misconceptions that surround skills education. His apprentice heroes defied low expectations.

Samwise Gamgee not only helped Frodo deliver the Ring to Mount Doom. He was eventually elected Mayor of the Shire seven times, and became an advisor to the King.

And Alf, the apprentice of Wootton Major, is finally revealed at the end of the tale be the Elven King of Faery himself.

Tolkien once said that true education is:

“A matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness.”

We want more and more people to build the skills needed for good employment in this age of ‘persistent newness’ – skills for new and shifting industries, that business leaders are crying-out for.

Successfully matching high quality training with the talent found in all walks of life will not only enhance our country’s skills and economic profile. It will allow people to truly thrive at work and in their communities.

Sector Response

Matt Ravenhill, director of corporate learning EMEA at D2L:

“The plans laid out by the Minister of Skills really show a commitment to upskilling the workforce across all ages and backgrounds. In particular, the focus on lifelong learning, will enable employees to adapt to the changing shape of work, especially as jobs, job roles, priorities change and as technology reshapes work environments. A new set of skills are required in today’s working world, and lifelong learning allows people to refresh and maintain existing knowledge and skills as well as learning new ones, while helping to plug the skills gap in enterprise.

“However, for lifelong learning to be truly effective, enterprises will need to work closely with the higher education institutions that will provide short courses to learners – as part of degree apprenticeships or individual modules that can be built upon over time. Ultimately, lifelong learning should allow learners to stop and start their learning journey by enrolling on courses that may only last a few weeks or months, and can provide targeted, specific training in a particular area. Alternatively, an employee could take on several courses, covering a variety of different skills.

“As well as lifelong learning, the planned investment will further support apprenticeships. Both apprenticeships for school leavers and returnships for over-50s have a part to play in plugging industry skill gaps – but to be successful, both initiatives should be designed with ongoing business challenges and the current job market in mind. These should be flexible, tailored training programmes that enable workers to top up their skills regularly and learn on their own terms. Both parties need to work closely with businesses when designing future courses, to ensure that the needs of specific industries are being addressed. By working together, all groups can ensure desirable skills are embedded within their curriculum and delivered across all courses and work placements.”

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