‘Apprenticeships should be as prestigious as Oxbridge’
Creating a national living wage for apprentices would place the programme at the heart of a movement for “social justice” in British society, Rob Halfon has claimed.
In his first interview since being appointed apprenticeships and skills minister, Mr Halfon also told TES that he wanted to make apprenticeships more accessible for single parents, disabled people and the unemployed.
And the new minister spoke of his desire for a Royal Society of Apprenticeships to be created to boost the esteem in which work-based training is held.
“You can have all of the government policies in the world, but none of it will matter unless you change the culture and way apprentices are seen,” he said. “My dream is that if someone says at a dinner that they’re doing an apprenticeship and another person says they’ve been to Oxbridge, that people will be more impressed by the apprentice than the person who goes to Oxbridge – not that I’ve got anything against Oxbridge, I should add.
“But I want to change the culture so an apprenticeship is seen as incredibly prestigious. So we’ve got to change the narrative. We need to explain why apprentices are important. It’s not just about economic productivity, which of course is central to the country because our productivity is not as high as it should be. It’s also a matter of social justice.
“That’s why I came into the Conservative Party. You may see that as a contradiction in terms, but it is my passion.”
While the role of skills minister has tended to be seen as a potential stepping stone to more senior government positions, Mr Halfon insisted that it was his “dream job” in government, given his long-held passion for apprenticeships – in 2010 he became the first MP to hire an apprentice for his own office (see box, below).
And while his precise ministerial duties have yet to be officially confirmed, Mr Halfon stressed that there was “nothing sinister” behind the uncertainty and that he had already met the civil servants in the newly expanded Department for Education who would be working under him.
“I was expecting to meet Sir Humphreys,” he said, in reference to the uncooperative civil servant from the sitcom Yes Minister. “But I’ve met incredible people who are really passionate about skills. In the last week I was bombarded with briefings.
“I went round the department, and met all the apprentice team and skills team. I made it clear that I’m not going to be holed up in my bunker on the ministerial floor. I’m going to go round the building and meet people. Yes Minister doesn’t exist in the DfE, in terms of skills anyway.”
Since winning his parliamentary seat in Harlow, Essex, in 2010, Mr Halfon has earned a reputation for being an ardent campaigner, not least on the issue of petrol prices.
He was described by former chancellor George Osborne as a “champion of the people he represents”, and in 2013 won the campaigner category at The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards in recognition of his work fighting to keep petrol duty low.
Mission to widen access
Campaigning on behalf of people with disabilities is also close to Mr Halfon’s heart: he was born with spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. And ensuring that people from all walks of life have access to apprenticeships is a key part of his mission.
“One of my principles is to try and see, without raising expectations, whether we can extend apprenticeships to people on even lower incomes and also single parents, particularly, and people with disabilities. If you just take a single parent, for example…one might be working in a coffee shop and they get roughly £600 a month. They might live in a council house or a social housing association home, and they might get another £600 in benefits.
“From experience, they’re often very clever people who’d love to do an apprenticeship, but they can’t afford it. They would get £3,000 or £4,000 from the apprenticeship, which isn’t a huge amount, but then they would lose some of their benefits.
“This will change with universal credit, and I need to look at all the figures, but it’s a massive disincentive. It makes it impossible for an aspirational single parent on low income to do this. I want to see how we can change that. It may be very difficult, but I want to see if it’s possible.
“Social justice is an incredibly important part of this – I don’t just see it in terms of economics. But there is a government target which is very important. I’ve got 3 million apprentices to find by 2020. It has to be about quality as well as quantity.”
Social and economic capital
One way of raising the prestige of the programme, Mr Halfon said, would be through creating a Royal Society of Apprenticeships, which could potentially sit within or alongside the proposed Institute for Apprenticeships.
He explained: “I’d love every person who becomes an apprentice to become a member, just as a surgeon becomes a member of the Royal College of Surgeons or a lawyer becomes a member of the Law Society.
“They would have a building they could go to. It would be very modern; it wouldn’t be an old-fashioned, stuffy kind of place. It would also be a resource centre, a place where they could do careers, CVs, those kinds of things. They could have graduation ceremonies in there, they could get certificates. It’s so much about prestige and the narrative. You can’t have one without the other.
“I don’t want to raise too many expectations. I’m not saying that I’m able to do all these things. But these are my dreams – the things I want to do.”
The apprenticeship levy is also a key strand of the government’s push to create 3 million apprentices by the next general election in 2020. For Mr Halfon, getting the levy to work, and ensuring that employers and providers understand how it will operate, is the “single most important” aspect of his new role.
“I believe that [through the levy] we’re saying, as a country, that the skills and opportunities for our young people are paramount…The level of training and skills for young people, even by big companies, is not as it should be. So I think the apprentice levy makes a powerful point about what we mean as a society. Brexit or not, companies have a duty to create social capital as well as economic capital.”
The prospect of leaving the European Union makes the need to develop home-grown skills even more urgent, according to Mr Halfon. “I voted remain,” he said. “I wasn’t a fanatic – I was about six out of 10 for remaining. But in Harlow 68 per cent voted to leave.
“The reason wasn’t about race or immigration, really. People struggle, and – especially in a new town like mine – people often have accommodation that’s not as brilliant as it should be, and often overcrowded accommodation. So when somebody comes along with an alphabet spaghetti of initials – OECD, IMF – saying your life’s going to get worse [if you vote for Brexit], well it’s pretty tough as it is, so it just didn’t mean anything to anyone.
“That’s why people voted, because they’re struggling. Of course things have got better. Of course they support the government. But they have struggled quite a bit since 2008.”
Making a living wage
On this theme, Mr Halfon was quick to pay tribute to the work done by the Living Wage Foundation. On 1 April, the government introduced a new mandatory national living wage (NLW) for workers aged 25 and over, initially set at £7.20 per hour – 50p higher than the current national minimum wage.
Apprentices, however, are excluded from the living wage, and those under 19 or in the first year of an apprenticeship can be paid as little as £3.30 an hour – something Mr Halfon would like to change.
“I would love to start a new movement with [the foundation] or whoever would want to, maybe with a trade union as well, for an apprentice living wage,” he said. “You would have it voluntary to begin with…To be fair, though, it is a risk. I think you change things not by bashing people but by doing what the Living Wage Foundation did, which was to create a movement.”
And Mr Halfon also stressed the important role played by colleges. “Most are good, there are a few outstanding ones and there a few that need a lot of help,” he said. “I want to visit the best and the worst, so I can understand why the ones who are doing badly are facing the difficulties they are. It’s not always about money, often it’s about leadership. I want to see how it is that some colleges do brilliantly, while others are struggling.”
And while he acknowledged the difficulty for colleges posed by the rise in the number of resits in English and maths GCSEs, Mr Halfon said achieving a good standard of literacy and numeracy was non-negotiable.
“I know there has been some angst about maths and English, but I do think those skills are incredibly important. If you look at the figures, they’re pretty horrific for the amount of young people who come out of schools not having proper maths qualifications, or understanding basic maths or proper literacy.
“In the world that we live in, it is just essential to have basic levels of maths and English. Some people have said to me ‘This is just too much for young people to do when they’re doing skills or vocational training [as well].’ My view is that it has to be done.”
But while Mr Halfon’s message might be tough, he insisted that he had the best interests of the sector at heart. He reckoned that, since he became an MP, he had visited Harlow College 44 times.
“I love it there,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to make skills minister. In fact, every time I go there, they say, ‘You need to speak to the skills minister about X or Y.’ I said to them yesterday, ‘Now I’m going to have to lobby myself.’ ”
‘My apprentices have been amazing’
In 2010, Rob Halfon became the first politician to hire an apprentice, and he helped to establish the Parliamentary Academy – the first apprentice school for the Palace of Westminster.
Last month he hired his fourth apprentice, Owen Warwick. In a new arrangement, the 18-year-old will be taught for a day a week at Harlow College, and divide the rest of his week between Mr Halfon’s parliamentary office and local firm Superior Roofing and Building.
“The apprentices who’ve been with me have been amazing,” Mr Halfon said. “One of them has gone on to work in the House of Lords in facilities management. He’s doing brilliantly. He wouldn’t have said boo to a goose when he first arrived.
“I wanted to offer the opportunity for someone in [my constituency] Harlow to do a transformational thing. But I thought that when it’s been done before, the disadvantage was that the apprentices were just doing politics. And so I just thought it would be better for the individual to work in a business, too.
“They do political research and basic office stuff as well. It’s a very tough thing to do but I’ve seen the way these people have changed over the year or 18 months they have been working with me. It’s extraordinary.”
‘I’ll work with any trade union’
Rob Halfon’s appointment to the Department for Education offers the opportunity for a thawing of the somewhat frosty relationship between ministers and the trade unions.
Since 2010, relations have become increasingly fractious, with former education secretary Michael Gove particularly outspoken in portraying the classroom unions as “enemies of promise”.
But Mr Halfon’s Twitter profile describes the Conservatives as being a “modern workers’ trade union”, and he was instrumental in setting up a Conservative Trade Unionists organisation.
“I want the Conservative Party to be a modern trade union movement as a whole – ie, guaranteeing lower taxes for lower-income workers, investment in the NHS and a national living wage,” he said. “I’m a member of a trade union myself, Prospect, which is a very, very good trade union.
“I would love to work with any trade union – I don’t care what their politics are – to build up apprenticeships in our country and to make sure that they’re socially just and [high] quality.”