If luck is an essential requirement for successful generals then timing is really important for Ministers who want to make a lasting difference. Robert Halfon has set out his priorities for his tenure and they are admirable. There is also a good chance they could be achieved if opportunities that currently present themselves are taken.
Much though depends on how well the Apprenticeship Levy is introduced. This is the big-ticket item that he has inherited and time will tell if it will be the stimulus to skills investment and productivity so badly needed or simply an additional employment tax. But there is no doubt that the answer will largely shape opinions on the success of current Apprenticeships policy implementation. It will also influence the political debate in 2020 as far as skills are concerned since the Levy is key to the delivery of the three million more Apprenticeships as well as being a manifesto commitment.
It is clear from Robert Halfon's speeches that he is looking to achieve even more than the successful delivery of the Levy and the manifesto commitment. He wants to make a difference to the esteem of Apprenticeships, to quality and to access. I am sure that very many people will welcome these choices and give him their support.
The timing on a number of policy implementation fronts is favourable. John Hayes put his weight behind Higher Apprenticeships and rightly considered them an important part of his own legacy as Skills Minister. They have developed fast but the current higher skills offer needs completing, including in the outstanding key professions. Evidence from the recent UVAC conference is that the HE sector is actively engaging with Degree Apprenticeships and keen to do more. Central funding is needed to complete the job as well as knowledge exchange.
Progress with the Higher and Degree Apprenticeships agenda is central to raising esteem. Parents and young people need to know that having HE opportunities available to them later if they follow an Apprenticeship route is the norm not the exception. We need to quickly reach that tipping point so that advisers are able to convey this exciting future possibility to potential apprentices and their families without caveats that put doubt in their minds.
The Institute for Apprenticeships also offers a great opportunity for establishing an important and lasting legacy. Many commentators have rightly argued in favour of greater institutional stability. How much better would it be therefore if the IfA could be put beyond party politics and made 2020 election-proof. Government should capitalise on the broad consensus that exists about the importance of Apprenticeships and quality. It should set up the IfA in a form that makes its longevity more likely. The Low Pay Commission shows this is possible.
The IfA also needs to be clear that its quality remit includes the apprentice's experience. It would send a very powerful signal if the IfA is given specific responsibility for monitoring and advising on issues of access, gender and ethnic participation and progression - all central quality measures. We might for example see the IfA as custodians of the Apprenticeship Opportunity Tracker proposed by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission earlier this year.
Which leads finally to what it is that Robert Halfon wishes to achieve on social mobility, an issue clearly close to his heart. This is not only reflected in his speeches but in the recent funding changes.Where does he want to make progress?
Will the focus be at entry level? Ensuring young people and especially young women do not disproportionately choose low paid occupations? Supporting more care leavers in finding an Apprenticeship opportunity? Extending traineeships so that more young people get the basic skills they need to start an Apprenticeship with confidence? Providing additional support for those with disabilities? Tackling the under representation of ethnic groups in many occupations?
Or will the focus be on ensuring that Apprenticeships enable a vocational pathway to high-level skills? More Apprenticeships that pass the social mobility test described by Richard Boniface recently? Higher and Degree Apprenticeships that top off all of the main vocational and professional routes? Apprenticeships that make the parents I meet think seriously about persuading their child to consider an alternative to the current so-called academic “royal route”.
Maybe the social mobility focus will embrace all of the above.
Higher esteem for Apprenticeships, better informed careers choices, improved access for all, broader progression routes and high quality skills that will drive productivity and fully engage both the FE and HE sectors - backed up by an Institute for Apprenticeships that will ensure these aspirations remain the critical focus of current and future Governments. Quite a legacy Minister.