Robert Halfon: Association of Colleges Conference 2016

The Apprenticeships and Skills Minister speaks to members of the AoC about the importance of high-quality technical and further education.

The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP

Not long ago I was listening to the radio, and a comedian noted that at the entrance to an English town a sign read: “Welcome to this town, home of its college”. They then went on making fun of the town for advertising itself and the college in this way.

This is exactly the problem we face in our country. The fact that a town is proud of its college is something that should be celebrated, not ridiculed on prime-time radio.

I feel this is the wrong attitude, the wrong way to look at further education. It shows the mountain we face when we try to change the perception of FE with the wider public.

Far from talking down our colleges, we should be celebrating our FE sector, celebrating our principals, governors, teachers and students. We should be celebrating the fact that FE colleges can help so many of those on low incomes get the qualifications they need.

Harlow College

How do I know this?

I’m proud to say that my views have been shaped by my own local college in Harlow over the years since I was elected as their MP.

I have been inspired by the staff, been inspired by the students and been inspired by the transformative effect the college has had on the community itself. I believe that colleges are not only beacons of education, but also civic institutions at the heart of our communities. That is why I have visited Harlow College 50 times since 2010, and why I intend to visit many more.

Visits tour

In the north-east I visited New College Durham and Derwentside. In the north-west, I toured Blackpool and the Fylde College, and in the east of England I have seen Cambridge Regional College and West Suffolk College.

Success statistics

We should be proud: out of 385 colleges 19% are outstanding and 61% are good. But even more significant are the statistics showing the destinations of adult students who complete FE courses: 64% get jobs, 20% go into further learning and 4% go on to university.

None of these results would be possible without the huge work principals and teachers do. Your work and your commitment to improving the life chances of the students are second to none.


I also want to acknowledge the support that trade unions in the sector give, and am pleased to have recently met with UCU and ATL to hear about their project which is one of a number of projects funded via the Unionlearn Fund.

Unionlearn develops the capacity of trade unions and union learning representatives to work with employers, employees and learning providers to encourage greater take-up of learning in the workplace. I am proud that this year the government has invested £12 million in this service, which has reached over 2.25 million learners over the last 10 years.


As the new FE minister, I have 5 priorities for FE:

  1. prestige
  2. skills
  3. social justice
  4. strong leadership and financial stability
  5. quality

Let me deal with each of these challenges in turn.


First of all, we need a national conversation about the importance of further education, with businesses, unions, community leaders and authorities at all levels, from Westminster to local councils.

As a government, we have promoted the conversation about non-academic paths for young people through the Get In Go Far campaign.

Part of promoting this conversation lies in making sure that there is good quality, dedicated careers advice for our young people, which covers all options available.

We will raise the prestige of FE by demonstrating to employers the high standard of skills, knowledge and behaviours that students gain, including through apprenticeships.

To fund these apprenticeships we are doubling the amount of cash we are investing in apprenticeships to £2.5 billion by 2020 compared to 2010.

My challenge is this: how is the sector going to use this opportunity to market itself, and innovate, to respond to the needs of national employers? I want colleges to be thinking big. In the future FE should be at the front of the queue - like Derwentside College with its 5,800 apprentices - pitching to be the provider of choice for our employers.

Skills gap

Second, we must tackle the skills gap and ensure we make opportunities accessible to all. To do this, we have to be honest about the scale of the problem, which has been getting worse for the past 20 years.

Around 20% of our long-term productivity gap with Germany is due to lower skills levels. We are the only OECD country where 16- to 24-year-olds are no better at literacy and numeracy than 55- to 65-year-olds.

The 2 skills that employers say are indispensable in the workplace are maths and English.

We have set a clear expectation that having a good level of maths and English should be the norm. It’s vital that these young people are given the support that they need to gain a sound grasp of English and maths by age 18 and, if possible, to secure GCSEs at grade C or above.

As such, we should celebrate the significant increase in the numbers of people successfully retaking their maths and English GCSEs. For example, maths was up from 30,000 before we introduced study programmes, to over 50,000 last summer.

I am determined to invest in the resources and capacity needed in FE to improve maths and English.

We have invested £40 million in the FE workforce since 2013. This has funded professional development for thousands of FE teachers to help them to improve their teaching of maths and English, as well as providing bursaries to over 870 graduates who are training to teach maths or English in the FE sector.

It is also clear that we need a credible, high-quality option for students for whom GCSEs are not appropriate or achievable.

This is why we are reforming functional skills to make sure that they are genuinely relevant to employers, and consequently have credibility and prestige in the jobs market.

Social justice and disadvantage

Further education is essential for social justice - ensuring that individuals from the lowest income backgrounds get on the ladder of opportunity and benefit from the best education and skills training. Proof lies in the 41% of level 3 FE students who live in areas of educational disadvantage, of whom 34% progress to higher education.

It is why I am proud of successfully campaigning with the AoC and Nic Dakin MP to introduce free school meals in further education - to support students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

We know that securing an FE qualification increases an individual’s chances to earn better wages and progress to further learning. For example, a level 2 qualification boosts earnings by 11% on average.

I am strongly committed to providing the funding our disadvantaged students need. Last year this included around £550 million to help colleges support, attract and retain disadvantaged students. An additional £180-million bursary fund to help with the costs associated with their education and also support our most vulnerable students should ensure every young person is given the best chance to succeed, including those with disabilities or in care.

Despite the challenges of the current economic climate, the 2015 spending review was a good one for the sector. For 16- to 19-year-olds, we protected the national base rate of £4,000 per student for the duration of the parliament, and will ensure there is a place in education or training for every 16- to 19-year-old who wants one.

I have been impressed by stories that the UCU are sharing, which demonstrate transformative role FE can have on people’s lives, and shows how it helps us to achieve social justice.

We have also guaranteed opportunities for adults in technical education.

By 2020, if we include the adult education budget, apprenticeship funding and the advanced learner loans, more funding will be available for supporting adult FE participation that at any time in England’s history.

The destination statistics speak for themselves. Of the adult learners who completed an FE course 64% get jobs, 24% continue learning.

Leadership and excellence

My fourth priority is leadership and excellence in FE colleges. I have seen remarkable leadership across the FE landscape. This is why the majority of colleges around the country are in good financial health, with a minority of around 40 colleges suffering with financial difficulties.

As a Star Wars fan, when it comes to leadership, I think we need an ‘attack of the clones’. In other words, how do we replicate, and add to, what is best? I know that the Education and Training Foundation is doing excellent work on this, as are the Collab Group, the Chartered Institution for Further Education and, of course, the AoC.

This is what the area reviews are about - not just ensuring we have the right structures in place but also that we are prioritising excellence and leadership across our colleges. I am really happy to see that the colleges involved in the process so far have shown real leadership by owning the reviews with their vision and propositions.

We are committed to assist colleges needing major changes, with a £100,000 transition grant and access to a restructuring facility, where needed.

Strong governance plays a key role in a college’s success too, and we are confident that colleges will be able to maintain their financial resilience in the long term.

But, if in the future, should colleges suffer extreme financial difficulties, the Technical and Further Education Bill will provide clarity in the unlikely event of insolvency while protecting students as part of the process.

We have a moral duty to students that money is spent on learning, and a responsibility to deliver value for money for taxpayers. The bill has the protection and best interests of students at its heart. It will also encourage prudent borrowing and lending, making sure that money that would otherwise be spent servicing the debt will be invested in high-quality education and training.


My fifth priority is to work with you to increase the quality of technical education including apprenticeships. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy and the implementation of the Sainsbury review aim to simplify the existing structures and to provide better quality in technical and professional education.

Quality is everything. It’s no good having millions doing technical education, including apprenticeships, if this isn’t excellent.

The Technical and Further Education Bill expands the role of the Institute of Apprenticeships to include technical education, making sure employers shape the technical qualifications as well as the apprenticeship standards.

We know the challenges in introducing major reforms to apprenticeships, skills and further education are considerable.

For the rest of this Parliament we will focus on consolidating these big changes so that we can ensure that these reforms are bedded in.


When we leave this conference, let us all play a part in making Britain the skills nation we need it to be.

I know that the AoC, with the incredible work that it does, will play a major role in this.

Let us go out and celebrate that 80% of colleges that are either good or outstanding, and the learners that having completed FE courses 64% of students get jobs and 20% continue learning.

Let us celebrate that all age apprenticeship participation has increased to nearly 900,000 apprenticeships in 2015 to 2016, the highest number since records began.

And when we achieve this, I hope every town in Britain will have a sign saying: “Welcome to this town, home to our brilliant FE college”.

Published 18 November 2016