Minister Halfon speech at the AoC Annual Conference

Minister Halfon delivered a speech at the Association of Colleges' Annual Conference 2023

The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP

Good morning, and thank you for that introduction.

The Association of Colleges is an important voice for further education, and a key contributor to the work of the department. After a year in-post as Skills Minister, I’m delighted to be speaking today on how we are continuing to move skills to the centre of education.

I first visited Harlow College shortly after being elected as an MP. Thanks to the vision of two exceptional leaders – including Karen Spencer, the current Principal – it has been transformed into one of the country’s leading colleges. I’ve now visited more than 100 times, as well as many other FE colleges, from Loughborough to Oldham, Waltham Forest to Stroud, and Telford to Gateshead. Seeing their facilities and focus on training students for success, helped me understand how FE colleges bring about social justice.

FE colleges are places of social and economic capital, and I am proud to be their champion in government. From beginning on the backbenches, to chairing the Education Select Committee and my time as Skills Minister - everything I’ve done in Parliament has been to promote skills education and boost support for FE.  

I don’t hold a meeting, or comment on a ministerial submission without asking: “What about FE? What are we doing to help it thrive?”

As my officials will tell you, further education does not get forgotten on my watch.

I believe FE colleges are a key pillar of the Ladder of Opportunity, enabling people of all backgrounds to gain sought-after skills and good jobs.

I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved over the last year. We saw more than 335,000 apprenticeship starts, with full figures for the academic year to be published shortly.

To help colleges and providers accommodate these new apprentices, in March we distributed £286 million via the Capital Transformation Fund to enhance your facilities. In July we announced £185 million for the 2023-24 financial year, to drive forward skills delivery in further education. This will be followed by £285 million in 2024-25. It will allow colleges and other 16-19 providers to improve recruitment and retention of teachers in high-value technical and academic subjects. In fact I was delighted to receive feedback last month from a college Principal, who was able to give their staff a significant pay award following this announcement. Our investment recognises the importance of your work to the country’s future economic growth and prosperity.

In order to look to what the future holds, I’d like to glance back to the past. Some of you may know that I’m a great admirer of many 20th Century American presidents. The obvious parallel with my life is that of Franklin D. Roosevelt - who despite being paralysed by polio, taught himself to walk short distances with leg braces and a cane.

The great wartime president famously pitched his 4 universal freedoms in 1941 to persuade America to abandon non-interventionism and join the war effort.

As I’m sure you know, those freedoms were: Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, and Freedom from fear.

While I’m glad to say that further education does not face a comparable existential threat, Roosevelt’s freedoms got me thinking about what FE needs to thrive, and where its future lies. I think there are 4 challenges it will need to meet over the next few years. I will outline them here, along with the support government is providing to help the sector face these changes.

The first challenge is fully resourcing the further education we know we need.

Properly resourcing further education includes allowing colleges to focus on what you do best –teaching vital skills, rather than negotiating bureaucracy and red tape. I will make sure we deliver existing commitments to make things easier, such as bringing together multiple revenue and capital grants in a Single Development Fund. We have already simplified funding rates at Level 3 and below, and reduced the apprenticeship onboarding process by a third. Our Expert Provider pilot is exploring how to further simplify the delivery of apprenticeships, so that you can focus on growth and quality. I have asked officials to think radically about streamlining end-to-end funding processes, and would welcome your input on this.

Deploying funding where it will hold most value for learners and businesses is really important. Last week we announced the Local Skills Improvement Fund allocations - more than £200 million for colleges and universities to offer training to address specific regional skills needs. Through Local Skills Improvement Plans, priority sectors are now able to steer funding towards the local skills provision needed to grow their workforce and the regional economy.

Bringing about a skills revolution, where more people choose high-quality technical education, necessarily means more FE teachers. On top of the additional £470 million I previously outlined to help with recruitment and retention, we are also investing in a package of direct support for those entering the workforce. This includes the new measures linked to the Advanced British Standard. We are expanding the Levelling Up Premium to give eligible teachers up to £6,000 annually, after tax, in addition to their pay. That’s those in the first five years of their career, teaching key STEM and technical subjects in disadvantaged schools, and – for the first time – in colleges too.

It is really significant that the Prime Minister mentioned these incentives in his speech to party conference, an arena where further education hasn’t frequently been acknowledged. When I say we are bringing FE to the centre of our policy plans, I mean it. I hate it when people call further education the Cinderella sector - but as in the story, Cinderella is now well on her way to joining the royal family. FE is central to the world class education system we wish to build.

This brings me to the Advanced British Standard, and our second challenge: rolling-out T Levels while we develop this new, overarching qualification.

When the ABS was announced, there was some concern that it had come to bury T Levels. What was the point of 3 years’ roll out, if T Levels were eventually going to be surpassed by something else? I’m here to tell you that one supports the other: T Levels will provide the backbone of the Advanced British Standard. We will continue to roll them out, with more to come in 2024-25.

Technical education has undergone unprecedented reform over the last decade, and we will continue this programme to simplify the skills landscape and create a stronger set of qualifications than ever before. All of this puts T Levels in a better position than any current qualification. As I say, they will be the backbone of the occupational route of the Advanced British Standard - making them the most “future proof” option you can offer 16-19-year-olds.

It’s thanks to all those pioneers here today, who championed T Levels from the start, that we can see a way to achieving a long held ambition: parity of esteem for technical and academic education. But we need your continued support. The best advocates for T Levels, who can demonstrate their benefits and versatility to upcoming year groups, are yourselves – Principals, tutors and teachers.

I’ve really enjoyed meeting college staff who have welcomed the Advanced British Standard, and the breadth of education it will, for the first time, afford every young person. Thousands of T Level students have gone on to take apprenticeships, jobs with top employers and places at university. Now is the time to persuade the Year 11s visiting your open days to consider T Levels, and the life-changing opportunities they bring.

The third challenge is to re-enforce further education as the Ladder of Opportunity for those who need it most.

FE’s power lies in the difference it can make to the lives of people who need a leg-up.

That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about it, and keen that this life-changing difference can reach as many as possible.

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement will do just that, democratising access to student finance like never before. It is the most exciting opportunity for learners in a generation, opening up skills training to people who previously thought it wasn’t affordable or applicable to them.

The LLE will transform FE when it launches in 2025. It will provide a loan entitlement equivalent to four years’ post-18 education (£37,000 in today’s fees) for use throughout people’s working lives.

As well as conventional higher technical or degree level studies, it will be redeemable against  high-value modular courses, provided by FE colleges and universities.

I think it’s hard overstate just how much flexible student finance will alter attitudes to retraining and upskilling. Like getting on and off a train, learners will be able to alight and board their post-school education when it suits them, rather than being confined to a single ticket. They can choose to build their qualifications over time, using both further and higher education providers. They will have real choice in how and when they study, enabling them to acquire life-changing skills to improve their employment options.

The prospect of attaining good, skilled work will be in closer reach of everybody.

And that opportunity is so important. My hero President Roosevelt knew this.

When he spoke directly to the American people in 1937, he said:

"The inherent right to work is one of the elemental privileges of a free people. Continued failure to achieve that right and privilege by anyone who wants to work, and needs work, is a challenge to our civilization and to our security.

"Endowed, as our nation is, with abundant physical resources, and inspired as it should be with the high purpose to make those resources and opportunities available for the enjoyment of all, we approach this problem of reemployment with the real hope of finding a better answer than we have now."

The LLE is that real hope of a better answer - that education can live up to its ideals by being available in the right way, at the right time, to those who need it most.

The LLE has the power to light the proverbial touchpaper - to benefit learners, employers, and colleges alike. I hope it triggers significant new collaborations between businesses, colleges and universities. Your ongoing engagement is crucial to delivering this transformation of student finance, and ensuring it benefits as many people as possible.

Further education students need just as much support to complete their studies and make a success of their efforts as undergraduates. In fact, they often need more - especially those from a disadvantaged backgrounds. The social justice of helping these students to succeed is a key pillar of the Ladder of Opportunity, and an absolute priority for me.

That is why I am delighted to announce the appointment of Polly Harrow as the first Further Education Student Support Champion. She will act as a channel between the sector and government, driving a strategic approach to improving the experience of students at colleges. I look forward to working with her, alongside Shelagh Legrave the FE Commissioner, to bring your concerns to the heart of government.

The 4th challenge we face is the future! The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Artificial Intelligence and the rising demand for green skills.

AI is the acronym of the moment, but it will have a huge impact on our future - including the labour market. Lots of repetitive administrative tasks will be streamlined, but programmers and task managers will be still needed to build and manage the digital infrastructure. As with other automated systems, complementary human skills will ensure AI is used to greatest effect and to maintain quality outputs. FE will be a crucial part of this new dynamic, with its ability to adapt provision to meet the skills needs of local employers. We’re already seeing great examples of provision innovation, such as Basingstoke College of Technology’s new skills modules on using AI safely and productively.

And some tasks will always require a human touch. The government’s transformative expansion of childcare is just one of the currents that run counter to the idea that human work is drying-up. Growing the Early Years workforce to deliver these reforms is a government priority, and presents a huge opportunity for colleges and learners. Now is the time to enter this expanding industry, with great training and progression routes.

Green skills are another important aspect of the future labour market. They should be part of your skills offer - not just to arrest global warming, but to catch the global winds of economic change. The economy and the jobs market are shifting permanently in this direction, and your learners should have the training opportunities to capitalise on that. Harlow College, which I mentioned earlier, has two green training facilities – an advanced manufacturing centre for electric vehicles, and a renewable energy centre. They are already bringing sort-after skilled employment to people in my constituency.

Our Skills Bootcamps have already seen 1000s of adults get a head start in sectors that need them, including green industries. Bootcamps currently offer flexible training in green construction, renewable energy, natural resources protection and green transport. I would encourage all colleges here today to apply for Skills Bootcamps funding and embrace this unique entry point for adult learners. Officials from the department are running a Bootcamps breakout session tomorrow, which I’d urge delegates to join!

I want to finish by turning back to President Roosevelt, and his stirring address to Congress in 1941. Elsewhere in the speech he describes ‘equality of opportunity for youth and for others’ as an important part of a strong democracy.

Many of you here today do so much to advance this measure of progress – working tirelessly to extend equality of opportunity to all your students. That to me is the true purpose of education:  to bring about social justice, so that everyone has the chance to improve their prospects, and contribute to society and the economy.

I know we have much more to do, within a changing economic landscape - but I look forward working with you to accomplish it.

Thank you, and I hope you enjoy today’s conference.

Department for Education
The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP