Most, if not all of the FE sector was left in shock this week after we exclusively revealed that Robert Halfon had been sacked from his job as apprenticeships and skills minister by Theresa May.
Mr Halfon, who took the role over from Nick Boles 11 months ago, is well known for his passion for FE and skills. I caught up with him two days after his unceremonious dismissal to discuss his time in office.
“I’ve loved doing the job, it was probably the best job I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
“FE is an area I’m really passionate about and I’d like to firstly thank FE Week for giving me a hard time. I mean that in a nice way – as you challenged us every day and, as I’ve always said to you, it is good to be challenged.”
Mr Halfon also thanked all of the hundreds of learners he has met up and down the country “who are doing outstanding apprenticeships”.
“They are getting skills, training and good qualifications and jobs at the end of it,” he said. “I must have visited around 35 or 40 FE colleges during my time as minister and what I really liked was how much hard and incredible work goes on.
“The FE and technical education sector is something we should be very proud of in our country.”
Mr Halfon’s sacking appears to have come as just as much of a surprise to him as it has to the sector.
He told me that the prime minister didn’t give him a clear reason for why she got rid of him – and he hasn’t gone quietly.
He has already featured on the front page of the Sun and on BBC Newsnight arguing for a major change in direction for the Conservative Party – including a new name (Workers’ Party) and a new logo which would feature a ladder.
The ministerial change comes in the middle of a wide and deep FE reform programme.
Mr Halfon worked on the apprenticeship levy, the college area reviews, devolution of the Adult Education Budget and the launch of a Post-16 Skills Plan.
With this in mind, I asked him for his top three highlights from his time as our sector’s minister.
Unsurprisingly, he pointed to getting the technical and further education bill through the House of Commons as his number-one achievement.
“The bill protects students at colleges faced with financial difficulties, and created the Institute of Apprenticeships,” he told me.
“The Queen signed it literally on the last day of parliament, just before the election, and I think if she hadn’t signed it at that time, we wouldn’t have got the bill and who knows what would have happened given the result of the election.”
His second highlight was when he got over 150 apprentices to visit the House of Commons.
“It was an extraordinary moment with apprentices from all walks of life, who realised that they could climb that ladder of opportunity to get skills and training for the jobs that they need,” he said, his enthusiasm shining through.
“I did a lot of visits as apprenticeships and skills minister going to a lot of colleges but my third was going to Crossrail.
“I went deep underground meeting apprentices from all walks of life and what was even more incredible a lot of female apprentices, and apprentices who had disadvantaged backgrounds, who were now responsible for building it, which was an incredible achievement.
“I’m proud that we have 900,000 apprentices, the highest ever on record, and we are going towards the target of three million apprentices over the parliament.”
Lastly Mr Halfon had a word on FE’s status in education: “Some people say that the technical and further education sector is the ‘Cinderella sector’,” he said.
“What I always say to everyone is to never forget that Cinderella married a prince; let’s banish the two ugly sisters of snobbery and intolerance and go out there and celebrate and support the incredible work of apprenticeships, further education and professionals who make Britain so great.”