Editor asks: Halfon answers three key questions after snap election announcement


Tonight, the Institute for Apprenticeships held a launch event in London at Mansion House. The apprenticeships and skills minister, Robert Halfon, was there to deliver a congratulatory speech. Afterwards, against a backdrop of the snap election announcement and as the event continued around us, I had the opportunity for a short interview and asked him three topical questions.

  1. Future of the 3m apprenticeship starts target

The Conservative manifesto in 2015 committed to three million apprenticeship starts by 2020. Given the snap election announced today, I asked the minister what happens now to the target.

The minister said he “wasn’t going to comment on that” as he “didn’t know what was going to be in the manifesto” but went on to say: “I’m very proud that we’ve got 900,000 apprenticeships in our country at the moment. Highest on record”

I pressed him on whether he wanted an apprenticeship starts target to be in the new manifesto, even whether it should be increased to 4m. He said it was “a very good question” but would only add that he “would love millions of quality apprenticeships – definitely.”

  1. Lack of English and maths policy shift

Last November the minister and Secretary of State Justine Greening indicated at the AoC annual conference that the policy on forced GCSE English and maths resits for grade D students wasn’t working. The following month the Ofsted annual report was also critical of the policy that was introduced last year.

So, I asked why, as reported in FE Week, the 2017/18 rules on mandatory GCSE English and maths resits remain unchanged.

After a long pause, the minister would only say: “If there wasn’t an election [announcement] today I would say there is a lot more work to do and watch this space.”

  1. Impact of the pause to the non-levy procurement process

The Education and Skills Funding Agency was due to share the results of the £440m non-levy funding procurement process on 14 March, but after a delay of nearly a month they announced last Wednesday they were ‘pausing’ the process until the end of 2017.

Those already holding an SFA contract would have it extended during the pause. But, as reported in FE Week, there are estimated to be around 400 providers (typically subcontractors) that in May will not have direct access to funding for more than 98 percent of employers, those that do not pay the levy. Many are hoping the agency will also pause changes to the subcontracting rules to allow existing arrangements to continue. Some, those with current allocations that did not make it onto the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers are also calling for its use to be paused.

Despite the promise of further guidance and clarification, nothing has yet been published.

So I asked the minister, about the “concern, confused and worried” providers after the pause was announced and what happens now.

He said “Well, exactly what we said in the press release that went out. It’s been paused until December”.

I pressed the minister on the hundreds of providers that applied for an allocation and now won’t have direct funding to non-levy funding in May. Do they go bust?

The minister repeated “we paused it until December and we will set out… well… again… election. If there hadn’t been an election [announcement] we would set out what was going to happen.”

I pressed again, asking what FE Week readers really want an answer to. Does the minister accept that following the procurement pause there are now several hundred apprenticeship providers that don’t know if they have a business from May?

“What I accept is that we’ve listened and we’ve extended this until December to make sure that we listened to the concerns that were set out and that’s exactly what we’ve done” said the minister.

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  1. Anne-marie Morris

    Well done Nick you tried really hard to get some answers and as The Rt.Hon Robert Halfon said they have listened, so let’s just hope between now and after the 8th June they carry on listening to the sector and it’s experts.

    • He can hardly comment on what might happen after a general election particularly given some of the shock election and referendum results thatwe have witnessed in the UK and overseas in recent years. The Minister and Secretary of State are both supporters of the further education sector and this is something the sector has not had for many years. I personally hope they will continue in post after the election but there is no guarantee there won’t be another coalition government. I expect the general election announcement was a closely kept secret that even he as a government minister was not privy to.

  2. Agree good questions asked, however the reality is that even with the pause until December, many providers will face real hardship, no mention of the conditions for Sub-Contracting rules from May!
    As a sub-contract we face paying the Management fee to the Prime and possibly now loose an additional 10% with the prime having to deliver on the contract, what was a tight squeeze before could potentially mean delivering 90% of a contract for as little as 60% of the funds available – how does the Minister react to this type of situation, an now given that the Election will take the focus, we will not receive any notification after this Friday, due to the Civil Servants being restricted to Election materials, just what are the plans to keep the industry running.
    We can deliver to Levy Apprenticeships from May, the reality is that whilst the investment and resources are ready, the Employer may use a Prime rather than the Provider.
    Frustrated is an understatement, we small providers need a true voice to raise our status in the Government, after all many Primes have delivered with Sub-Contracted providers, these figures do not reflect the true status.
    I would like to seek clarification to the Funding Rules – can we have agreement to postpone these as well, especially for sub-contracting provision that again has been enforced upon us.

  3. The over subscription of the non levy payer contract was entirely predictable. Providers were able to bid up to their last year’s turnover, which could have resulted from any activity in any education sector, or not even education related. When re-run, the limit should be the last year’s direct delivery (not turnover) for each framework they were bidding for. There is after all, little real penalty for overestimating capacity.

  4. Darren

    Great questions with no substantial answers. The new subcontracting rules if applied to December will only give these employers another reason to dis-engage, thus threatening the 3 mill target. No surprise then that the Minister wont comment! Employer now faced with 10% charge, 20% off job and a significant amount of the delivery from a prime they have never dealt with. Will an employer really want all this or simply divert to ESF provision where no 10%, no 20% and 100% of one provider? Seems obvious to me what they will do!

  5. Good questions, thanks. Re question 3, new main providers who are small businesses, so don’t pay the levy themselves, cannot provide to their own employee apprentices. Employer providers can only provide to/train their own staff if they use the digital account. We’ll have to use an ‘outside’ main provider. Go figure.