Halfon: FE must recognise 'step forward' in funding even if it's not a 'giant leap'

The FE sector needs to recognise that government has “made a step forward, even if it may not be a giant leap” when it comes to funding, the re-elected chair of the education committee has said.

Robert Halfon also believes the apprenticeship levy is in need of reform, but he does not agree with the view of Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman who wants to restrict employer spending decisions.

The MP for Harlow and former skills minister, who was re-elected unopposed this week, insists priorities for the cross-party committee will be set by the entire membership once other MPs are elected.

“I wake up thinking about education and skills, I go to bed thinking about it”

And he told FE Week he has pledged to continue to set government “hares running”.

Halfon insists that it was his committee that put FE and school funding on the agenda “big time” in the build up to last year’s general election.

The £14 billion extra for schools, the £3 billion national skills fund and £1.8 billion for college capital projects committed by the Conservative party are “significant” and an “important step towards stabilising funding”.

In July 2019 the education committee backed the Sixth Form Colleges Association’s Raise the Rate campaign. They said the government needs to “urgently” increase the base rate for students aged 16 and 17 to “at least £4,760”.

A month later the chancellor announced a £400 million boost for FE which included increasing that base rate by 4.7 per cent, from £4,000 to £4,188.

Whilst it wasn’t the substantial growth his committee had called for, Halfon said: “When the government does something right, even if it’s not everything, I think you’ve got to recognise that they’ve made a step forward, even if it may not be a giant leap.

“I’ll always advocate for more,” he added, “especially on FE, because that has always been underfunded.”

Halfon’s new committee will look very different. Former members Michelle Donelan and Emma Hardy have been appointed to the government and opposition frontbench education teams respectively. Trudy Harrison is now the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary.

“Clearly, education committee is a ladder of opportunity,” Halfon smiled as he deployed his famous catchphrase.

Parliament looks very different now, too. So how can Halfon, a Conservative, reassure those who doubt his ability to hold his own government to account now that it has a large majority?

“First of all, I’d say all they need to do is look at my record in the last parliament,” he says.

“And secondly… my passion is education. I wake up thinking about it, I go to bed thinking about education and skills. And I want to make things better. That’s why I’m doing the job.”

Investigating the plight of demographics that get “left behind” by the current education system is a priority for Halfon, as is probing the activities of education quangos.

“Some of them are pretty big cash cows, untouched by austerity,” he said. “We’re talking about [shortages of] funding – and yet some of these quangos can spend money seemingly unsupervised, wherever they want.”

The last education committee savaged the Careers and Enterprise Company over its spending on research and events, and Halfon has said the body can be “ludicrously wasteful”.

Another area that Halfon is keen to continue scrutinising is apprenticeships.

His committee held an inquiry into apprenticeships and skills training in 2018, but the chair now wants a specific investigation into the levy which he helped launch during his time as skills minister.

The levy has continued to make headlines over the past year with projections that the apprenticeships budget will soon be overspent, and Department for Education officials admitting that “hard choices” will be needed to prevent it from going bust.

Last week, Ofsted said in its annual report that high levels of management and health apprenticeships need to be addressed “urgently” because they are a “mismatch” with the government’s industrial strategy.

“I’ll always advocate for more, especially for FE”

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman then admitted that she has been “encouraging government” to restrict spending choices made by levy-paying employers.

Does Halfon agree with this approach? “No, not necessarily,” he says.

“I do definitely think we need to look at the levy. I don’t have all the answers because I would love our committee to hopefully do an inquiry on reform of the levy.”

He anticipates that there “will be reforms” by this government and says his preference is for the levy to be extended by the number of companies that pay it.

Currently, only firms with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million fork out 0.5 per cent of their salary costs to pay into the levy. Halfon says this amount could be reduced to £2 million.

He added that the apprenticeship levy “is a very important thing and I absolutely believe in it”, and he rejects calls for it to be expanded to pay for different types of training.

Having said that, he does believe in creating “social justice or skills credits”.

“So, if you employ people with disadvantaged backgrounds to do skills, you would get a skills credit on your tax bill – that’s how I think the government should invest in the system.”

He said this could be “particularly useful in terms of adult and lifelong learning” – an area that his committee announced an inquiry into before the general election and one which he “hopes very much” will be picked up again in this Parliament.