Skills, apprenticeships and HE minister Robert Halfon delivered the closing keynote speech at this year’s ninth Annual Apprenticeships Conference in Birmingham.
In a video message to assembled delegates, Halfon outlined his work with the Department for Education to elevate the role of apprenticeships, and explained the five rungs of his much-talked-about ladder of opportunity.
Here’s his speech in full.
“Hello, everyone. I’m sorry that I can’t be with you this afternoon at the end of an extraordinary programme of speakers and events.
“I have been a champion of apprenticeships since my earliest days in Parliament, and I’m really pleased to be back as the minister for this remarkable, life-changing programme.
“I hope I find you fizzing with enthusiasm after the last two days, and looking forward to the crowning event of the conference: the gala dinner and AAC awards this evening.
“For anyone flagging after all those accountability framework and funding model discussions, unlikely I know, the previous speaker will have been an important breath of fresh air. Ayo Sokale challenged you to think about how you recruit and work with neurodiverse apprentices and employees. This is an area of strong interest for me, part of the broader picture of providing the apprenticeships ladder of opportunity to everyone, whatever their background, disadvantage or learning style.
“Sometimes, they may have struggled to be accommodated in traditional education. I’m always alive to new suggestions of how we can better habilitate all types of talent within the programme.
“Apprenticeships are incredibly diverse, so apprentices must be too. I will go on to say more about what we’ve been doing later.
“I know some of the best representatives of apprenticeship provision are here today. I want to thank you for all the brilliant work you’re doing to support apprentices, apprenticeship provision and the wider programme. Your work is powering the government skill revolution along with T Levels and higher technical qualifications, apprenticeships together, we are bringing forward the skilled workers that companies are crying out for, helping people climb the ladder of opportunity to get those fulfilling career building jobs.
“As a government we are matching your work with big investment with apprenticeship funding, reaching £2.7 billion by 2025.
“I want to briefly frame our current activity using the ladder of opportunity. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a way of thinking about what we need as a country to get to where we want to go. With the right thinking systems and infrastructure in place, we can raise the skills level of the nation to boost economic growth.
“The ladder has two crucial pillars that hold it up – these are social justice and strengthening further and higher education.
“Giving all young people access to opportunities that lead to a good job is fundamental to me. To every young person I meet my message is that no matter who you are, or where you’re from, or whatever career you want to do, an apprenticeship will open doors for you.
“Social justice means ensuring disadvantage of any kind is no bar to these opportunities. We’ve recently seen more apprentices declaring a learning difficulty or disability, 14% of starts in 2021/22 compared to 12.4% the previous year. We want this trend to continue and are working to adapt the system to make it welcoming and accessible to these candidates.
“On the ‘find an apprenticeship’ search there’s now a filter so candidates can easily locate opportunities with disability-confident employers. We’ve also launched a disabled apprentice network in partnership with Disability Rights UK to build insight on how to attract and retain disabled candidates.
“And from August we will increase the apprenticeship care leavers bursary to £3,000. This means young people leaving care can consider an apprenticeship confident they can cover their costs.
“Strengthening higher and further education means improving the post-16 system for everyone so that the full range of choice is visible. All options should lead to respected attainment and good jobs.
“The first step onto the ladder is careers empowerment. I’m determined that all school careers information should include work experience and skills based options.
“We are exploring how to quality assure the delivery of comprehensive career guidance, because advice given at this stage, for good or ill, often has long lasting effects. This includes looking at how schools are fulfilling their Baker Clause statutory duties. In the meantime, our ASK Programme backed by £3.2 million of annual funding is raising pupils’ awareness of the benefits of apprenticeships.
“As I announced during National Apprenticeship Week, from this autumn UCAS will begin to expand their apprenticeship service. In a couple of years young people will be able to use the platform to search and apply for apprenticeships alongside degrees.
“Our broader vision is to eventually develop a one-stop shop where citizens can explore all their career and training options at any point in their lives.
“The second rung of the ladder is about championing the apprenticeships and skills that employers need, which is important for students’ career progression and for the economy. On a broader level, this means making sure there is support for apprenticeships in every area of the economy, from green energy to the creative industries. My officials at the Department for Education and I are collaborating across government with all relevant departments to bring the benefits of apprenticeships to every industry.
“I often say degree apprenticeships are my two favourite words in the English language. This is because they combine the best of vocational and academic education, allowing young people to earn while they learn and remain free of student debt.
“We’ve seen some big employers design these courses in collaboration with excellent universities but many more are needed to meet demand. We’re working with higher education institutions to increase supply and have made up to £8 million available during this financial year to help them grow their degree apprenticeships offer.
“We’re aware that one size does not fit all in business, so we’re continuing to adjust the programme to suit different sectors. We’ve created flexible training models like accelerated apprenticeships, which enable those progressing from other skills programmes or prior industry experience to complete more quickly, and the improved transfer system will make it easier for levy paying employers to find others who wish to take on a new apprentice with transfer funds.
“The third rung of the ladder is about the quality of skills education. This is now part of apprenticeships’ DNA. The 600-plus apprenticeship standards were designed to be rigorous and challenging to meet employers’ needs and build industry respect for the programme.
“Our objective remains that every apprentice should have a high quality experience, including excellent training from their provider.
“To drive up quality provision, we have refined the entry criteria and conditions of acceptance for the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers. This included requiring all providers to reapply to join the register by the end of 2022.
“We are continuing to strengthen accountability in the marketplace with Ofsted inspecting all providers by 2025. We know there is more to do to increase not just the number of people starting apprenticeships, but also the achievement or completion rate.
“We’ve set an ambition for the achievement rate to reach 67 per cent by the end of the 2024/25 academic year. There’s a comprehensive plan in place to reach that aspiration, including significant investment in development support for the sector workforce, we’re doing more to iron out issues and help employers deliver high quality training.
“At the same time we’re supporting apprenticeships with better guidance every stage of their apprenticeship journey using new digital support services and careers advice.
“The fourth rung is lifelong learning. We need to give people the opportunity to train, retrain and upskill throughout their lives to respond to the changing demands of the economy.
“Apprenticeships provide a great opportunity for those seeking to switch track after secondary education, earning while they learn new skills. We want to complement this route by offering a more flexible student finance system for other types of study.
“We recently published our response to last year’s consultation on the lifelong learning entitlement which will unify higher and further education finance under a single system.
“From 2025, the financial support offered will be equivalent to four years of post-18 education, £37,000 in today’s fees, for individuals to use over their working lives. Apprenticeships will continue to be funded through the employers apprenticeship levy so will not be directly affected.
“However, we believe that giving people a greater choice in how and when they study will create a cultural shift in how vocational education is perceived and accessed. Learning and paying for technical education in a modular way will help those unable to commit to an apprenticeship to gain buildable qualifications and consider subsequent steps.
“Under the new lifelong loan entitlement, each learner’s personal account will not only display their remaining student finance balance, but give them access to information, guidance and courses to guide their learning pathway. Like getting on and off a train, they’ll be able to alight and board their post-school education when it suits them, rather than being confined to a single ticket.
“Progression is as much about building skills incrementally as it is completing a prestigious degree level apprenticeship. What matters is that choice and financial support are clear from the outset so that everyone can plot a path towards the career that’s right for them.
“The fifth rung at the very top of the ladder is job security and prosperity. The skills system must support people into secure, sustained and well-paid employment and provide opportunities for them to progress in their careers.
“The idea is that if all the rungs leading up to this point are robust, this is where citizens can expect to thrive.
“As some of you here may have experienced first-hand, I travelled up and down the country during National Apprenticeship Week visiting colleges, universities and businesses and providers. I don’t think you’d believe me if I proclaimed I’d walked 500 miles, although I did travel nearly 900 miles, to spread the word about apprenticeships. That journey demonstrated to me once again the tremendous enthusiasm out there for what these opportunities can bring to businesses, apprentices and the economy.
“My priority has remained to boost the numbers of people starting and achieving apprenticeships from level 2s to degree apprenticeships enrolment. We must amplify these opportunities to bring out real social justice in society.
“No one should feel that their circumstances leave them unable to improve their skills and employment prospects.
“I hope you feel renewed by what you heard in Birmingham this week and that we continue to work together to make our apprenticeships programme the best in the world.”