That was a short honeymoon!

Just three weeks ago FE Week reported that the sector had given a “Warm welcome for new minister for apprenticeships and skills”.  Now Robert Halfon is being called “silly” and “naïve” on Twitter for his view that “apprenticeships should be as prestigious as Oxbridge”:

This is just plain silly. Won’t somebody tell him.

Slightly silly statement from a rather naive minister

Probably the most ridiculous statement ever uttered by an incoming Skills Minister (note not FE!) in my 40yrs in Education!!

You could understand Halfon feeling a bit aggrieved.  His enthusiasm for apprenticeships shone through in his interview for the TES, and no reader could doubt that it’s entirely genuine.  So here he is enthusiastically embracing the biggest policy initiative in the skills and FE field for decades, and promising to join battle on dear old parity of esteem, the sector’s Holy Grail – and getting slated for it.

Except that ‘skills’ and ‘FE’ are not the same thing at all.  It suits everyone, most of the time, to bracket them together, but they’re different.  As the third quote above shows all too clearly, there are plenty people in FE who are not at all persuaded that apprenticeships should have the attention – and the funding – they’re currently getting.

It’s not just FE either.  The CBI has been increasingly strident in its view not just that the Levy should be postponed, but also that companies should be able to spend it on other training, not just apprenticeships.  (Which is very much the view of the Scottish Government from the briefing which accompanies its current consultation).

Others share the CBI’s view*.  Everyone praises apprenticeships, but unbridled enthusiasm for apprenticeships is a minority view.

And what of the charge of naivety?  If you wanted to design the ultimate windmill for a skills sector enthusiast to tilt at it would be to make apprenticeships as prestigious as Oxbridge, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps it’s no more than a rhetorical flourish designed to catch attention (in which case, it worked).

But no one, and surely this includes Robert Halfon himself, thinks this is going to happen – what?  ‘ever’?  ‘any time soon’?  ‘in the lifetime of this Parliament’?  Pick your own qualifier, but I suspect most will go for ‘ever’ and look to the Minister to work to a more realistic goal in practice, whatever he says.

Look also at this from Stephen Exley’s interview in the TES:

I was expecting to meet Sir Humphreys. … But I’ve met incredible people who are really passionate about skills.  In the last week I was bombarded with briefings”.

I’m sure I was not the only reader who remembered that bombarding the Minister with briefings is actually a classic Sir Humphrey ploy.

But let’s be fair.  It is a wholly good thing that we have a Minister who’s really enthusiastic about his brief, and who cares about social justice as much as economic success.  The sector likes enthusiasts, from Bill Rammell to John Hayes.  We – and he – should be looking for ways to harness Halfon’s enthusiasm to make a difference.

*for the counter-view see the strong case for apprenticeship-only fund which Alison Wolf makes in her Social Market Foundation paper Fixing a Broken Training System, pp 15-16.

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About Iain Mackinnon

I am Managing Director of The Mackinnon Partnership, a niche consultancy working primarily with public sector clents in the UK, and focusing on skills and enterprise, usually in the wider context of wider economic development.
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