AELP conference 2024: Insights from ex-minister and new CEO

FE Week rounds up some of the key speeches

FE Week rounds up some of the key speeches

FE leaders and experts gathered in Hammersmith this week for the 2024 Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ (AELP) national conference, a week before the general election. Here are the key takeaways from some of the speeches…

I’d up the apprenticeship levy, says Halfon in parting salvo 

Former skills minister Robert Halfon would have “no problem” increasing the apprenticeship levy if he were in charge, and “absolutely would” review and improve functional skills.  

In a wide-ranging “in conversation” session at this year’s AELP annual conference in London, Halfon said he was “depressed” that apprenticeships and skills were not featuring prominently in the Conservative party’s election campaign.   

“I’m glad the Conservatives have said we would have 100,000 more apprenticeships. I actually wish that apprenticeships and skills featured more in the campaign. That has depressed me a bit.”  

Halfon shocked the sector and the Westminster establishment in March by suddenly resigning as minister for skills and announcing he would stand down as an MP. He told FE Week at the time he felt he had “done all I could” for apprenticeships and wanted to spend his remaining time in parliament working for his Harlow constituents.   

Robert Halfon

While welcomed by delegates as a champion for apprenticeships, Halfon was challenged on stage about restrictive English and maths rules that training providers say holds back achievement – a topic that has featured heavily at successive AELP conferences.  

Apprentices must pass English and maths qualifications if they fail at GCSE to achieve their apprenticeship. Providers have long argued qualifications’ curriculum, assessment and funding are not fit for purpose.   

Learners with English and maths passes earn higher wages, Halfon told the audience, and he didn’t want “to create a kind of ghetto system where you say because someone has a disadvantage, they do a lesser qualification”.  

But asked what he would do if he were to become the minister again, he would “absolutely look at functional skills and review it and make it more practical”.  

On apprenticeship funding, he claimed he had “no problem, personally” with asking employers to pay more in to the levy as long as it was done “carefully”. But he wouldn’t be drawn on why the Treasury top slices almost £800 million from levy receipts each year.   

The apprenticeship levy has been described by AELP as a “cash cow for the Treasury” because of the growing gap between what employers pay in and what they allocate to the DfE and devolved UK administrations.   

“I always lobbied for more funding,” Halfon said, “but I also had the argument thrown at me all the that the levy’s not being used by businesses.”  

He is worried that apprenticeship numbers will fall under a Labour government and warned that employers could game their new funding system.   

Labour’s plans for a “skills and growth” levy would allow businesses to spend their funds on wider skills training, as well as apprenticeships.   

“I want it to remain an apprenticeship levy, not be a skills levy. What it has done is raise funds to pay the costs for SMEs to train apprentices. If you dilute it, you’ll have gaming of the system potentially, but also lots of people doing skills courses rather than hiring apprentices.” 

Rather than use the levy to fund other skills courses, Halfon backed a skills tax credit. Learning and Work Institute and Holex have put forward tax credit models that would give businesses tax benefits if they invested in particular types of training, such as level 2 and below qualifications, for certain workers.   

On his next steps, Halfon said he would be “honored” to join the Lords, but quipped: “There’ll be a bigger queue for the House of Lords than the Selfridge’s sale, especially if the [general election] polls are correct.” 

 His advice for new MPs entering parliament next week is to “evangelise about apprenticeships and skills”.  

“My hope and aim is that I will move on from Westminster life championing apprenticeships to championing apprenticeships and skills working somewhere.” 

ITPs help ‘make magic happen’ in trying times, says AELP boss

Private training providers are still battling against “institutional suspicion”, the chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ chief executive has warned.  

Ben Rowland (pictured) told delegates at the association’s annual conference in London that he was working to create better working conditions for them to “thrive”.  

He used his speech on day one of this week’s event as an opportunity to run through what he has learned over his first six months in post.  

Following a roadshow in which he met more than 200 members face-to-face, Rowland said he heard how ITPs “make magic happen” by injecting productivity into employers and how they contribute to the nation’s prosperity through their training offer.  

But tight funding and regulatory markets meant they had to do this “with one arm tied behind your back” and with “very little appreciation”.  

“There still, unfortunately, is institutional suspicion of independent providers”.   

He told delegates this was triggered by “previous episodes” in which civil servants “have felt they have had rings run around them by unscrupulous providers”.  

“I’m not talking about the officials necessarily that we work with personally, but the teams underneath them who operationalise policy, funding and rules.”  

He said his interactions with government had also shown him how policymaking was “light on data and strong on anecdote”. He told members that funding decisions were often made based on isolated snippets of data out of context and/or on the basis of a handful of conversations. This was something that “had to change”.  

The way government assesses risk was also “odd”, he said. In the case of ITPs, the risk of “not equipping people with the skills the country desperately needs carries very little weight, whereas they obsess about the risk that money does not flow in exactly the way they want their ideal programmes to work”.  

He said that if AELP and its members could “present our case in the right way” then the sector would “slowly but surely get them to create the conditions in which we can flourish – because if we flourish, then so do they. We just need to show them this”.  

He revealed that the association was launching a series of “mini-commissions” and a “regulatory burden project” to boost evidence for conversations with incoming ministers on the most pressing issues facing the skills sector.  

The commissions will last eight to 12 weeks. The first will focus on whether the existing English and maths functional skills exit requirements are holding back apprenticeship progression and outcomes. 

Devolved AEB ‘difficult to navigate’ 

A “postcode lottery” of adult education funding and policies created by devolution should be simplified by the next government, training providers have urged.  

The devolution of England’s £1.5 billion adult education budget to regional mayors – now accounting for about 60 per cent of spending – was discussed at a workshop at the conference on Tuesday.  

A hands-up survey suggested that about half viewed devolution of adult skills as a negative.  

While devolution allowed mayors to leverage their local knowledge and could encourage innovation, it also risked creating a “postcode lottery” for learners, training providers and employers, panellists agreed.  

Labour has pledged a “presumption towards” increasing local spending if it wins the election, suggesting it is unlikely to reverse the Conservative’s decision to hand skills budgets to nine mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) and local authorities by 2026-27.  

Lucy Hunte, the senior apprenticeship development manager at NHS England, said devolution could be “quite challenging” for trusts that straddled more than skills area because of differing policies and bidding rules set by mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.  

“Some authorities are really, really engaged … you know, what do you need? What are your skill requirements? 

“Others, they dictate and say, ‘this is what you need,’ and that’s not necessarily fit for purpose. 

 “It’s a really mixed bag and it’s a shame, because I think if handled properly, it is really, really beneficial – but the feedback I get from my employers is it’s just a minefield. It’s really difficult for them to navigate.”  

Examples of “different” approaches MCAs took included the sectors they prioritised and what level of earnings qualified learners for free or discounted learning.  

Fellow panellist Steve Morris, the commercial director of Learning Curve, said his team was “heavily involved” in devolution because it regularly bid for training across the country, His commissioning team and grown from two to nine in the past five years.  

Turning to solutions, he encouraged providers to collaborate on MCA contracts and with authorities to ensure mutual understanding.  

Hunte said rules needed to be “simplified and standardised” across England, to ensure contract-awarding timescales and bidding systems were carried out in the same way.  

Earlier in the day, Stephen Evans, the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said MCAs should focus on outcomes and be held to account on “broad targets” such as employment and apprenticeships.  

He suggested that some spending, such as careers guidance and skills bootcamps, should be commissioned by the government rather than regional mayoral authorities. 

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