Halfon: Select Committee chair talks skills and 30 hours

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Nursery World sat down with Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee and former apprenticeship and skills minister, to discuss his thoughts on T Levels, vocational training, 30 hours and children’s centres.

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Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee and MP for Harlow

Before we got started, the MP for Harlow in Essex proudly showed off the memorabilia and photos of his idols – Margaret Thatcher and John F Kennedy – hanging from the walls in his parliamentary office, as well as a leather armchair that he said was once Winston Churchill’s.

The sector has raised concerns that the occupational maps used to develop T Levels (a consultation on which closed on 8 February) don’t reflect the sector. For example, under the Education and Childcare route, the Level 3 Early Years Educator is referred to as an ‘Early Education and Childcare Assistant’; the consultation on the Level 2 also refers to the qualification as an assistant.

Level 2 is absent from the occupational maps, whereas T Levels are meant to be for Levels 2 and 3…

This is really important that you have raised this with me and I am happy to flag this up to Government ministers.

[Mr Halfon takes a copy of the maps from Nursery Worldthat have been annotated to point out concerns.]

These are the kind of things as a committee we are there to do, to help solve or identify problems. Our committee is a powerhouse of ideas.

T Levels are a good thing, but you have to iron out the problems like this.

The occupational maps have to be clear and coherent. There has to be both Level 2 and 3 in there. The whole idea of the pathways is that there are different levels of progression. We will raise this at committee when we have the Childcare Minister.

I think that T Levels will be something very special. I want to encourage a vocational education. I’d love lots of people to do T Levels.

I think the idea is that they are much more employer-led, that learners will have to undertake a significant amount of work experience and that they will cut down all the existing qualifications. I’m not against BTECS, but there are hundreds of these things, for example.

I am passionate about T Levels. In fact, I wish they were happening sooner, I really do.

Do you think it is damaging to the social justice agenda that Government has chosen to exclude Good and Outstanding training providers from supporting settings with their apprenticeship training simply because of the minimum contract level for non-levy provision? Many of these trainers worked with providers that supported young and disadvantaged apprentices.

I think procurement is a massive problem. Anne Milton [Apprenticeships and Skills Minister] says it is the hardest part of government.

There needs to be a fundamental review into how companies win contracts. How is it that big companies like Learn Direct get all these whacking contracts? I think that we need radical reform.

I am in support of the levy as its purpose is to change behaviours. I want to build an apprenticeships and skills nation. We’ve got massive problems with skills in our country. We are behind all the other countries. It is partly Government’s fault and partly companies’ fault that they don’t invest in quality training.

The idea is that the levy raises money to pay for everyone else to have apprenticeships. Some people say small organisations shouldn’t have to pay anything for the training costs. Well, if you hire a 16- to 18-year-old, and have less than 50 employees, you don’t pay for the training, but if you have more, you pay 10 per cent. I don’t have a problem with that, I think companies should invest in the training. I have a parliamentary apprentice and pay for the training costs. It’s just a small amount of money a year. I want companies to value apprentices and not see them as a form of cheap labour.

You recently told The Times that you think students taking degrees in subjects where there is a skills shortage should receive discounts. Would childcare be in this category?

Where we don’t have skills we need to do everything possible to help, and that would be in sectors including childcare, healthcare, engineering and science.

If there were a surplus of childcarers in this country then that would be different, but there isn’t.

I look at these childcare professionals when I go to nurseries in my constituency of Harlow and they are extraordinary. I think childcare is one of the toughest jobs you could do. There are health issues, safeguarding issues, constant training. You are a teacher because you are giving them [children] an education.

My hope is that many childcare professionals wouldn’t do degrees, but degree apprenticeships or apprenticeships, because it is a very practical profession. What I would like to see is some of the bigger nursery groups offering this. I suspect they are offering Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeships, but I would love them to offer a degree apprenticeship in childcare, for example, with a university.

My dream is that 50 per cent of students do degree apprenticeships. Then you remove the problem of the loan. I wouldn’t be in favour of scrapping student loans, but what I want to do is offer people that degree apprenticeship. You earn while you learn, are virtually guaranteed a job at the end. No loan, no debt. That is the answer.

I went to university in Exeter. I did politics and a Master’s in Russian politics; that shouldn't have been allowed. If I wanted to do politics then fine, but I should have had to do science and maths also. Not necessarily at degree level, but a refresher. I think that students are leaving university in this country too narrow-focused.

Everyone in the state education system up until the age of 21/22 should have to do maths and science because of the world we are moving to – the march of the robots when jobs are going to be making the robots and doing the coding, building apps. We’re in big trouble if we don’t have this knowledge. We can’t have a new generation of people that don’t understand science.

Likewise, people studying science should have to do English and maybe a bit of economics. Other countries do this, countries such as America. Maybe at post-graduate level students could narrow themselves down to some great intellectual pursuit, but up until this point there needs to be a mixed education system.

You mentioned the ‘march of the robots’. What place, if any, would they have in the childcare sector?

I read somewhere that 28 per cent of young people aged 16-24 will be affected by automation – their jobs will be gone by 2030.

I think healthcare, childcare, human professions, it is going to be a long time before robots replace staff. There may be a robot doing all the accounts.

What about using robots for practical elements such as changing nappies?

There might be a place, who knows? I think it will be more that they will have a robot in the office doing the administration. I don’t think you will ever be able, I just can’t contemplate, to replace the human emotion and interaction.

Robots have artificial intelligence, but not emotional intelligence yet. Emotional intelligence is unique to humankind.

This goes back to why childcare should be seen as one of those professions we desperately need.

You’ve said before that family hubs can play a valuable role in tackling social injustices in our education system, but how would this be funded and made a priority when many children’s centres across the country have closed or been reduced to a skeleton service?

I am very much in support of this family hub idea, but would like more evidence on it. It’s basically holistic, everything is there from CAMHS to childcare, everything, all in one place.

We can’t go back to Sure Start. I think the problem with Sure Start centres is that they did many good things but, for example in Harlow, we have an amazing Home Start – I am the patron. They never have enough money. What I never understood with the Sure Start thing is why create something completely new when Home Start was doing an amazing job. Home Start offers incredible mentoring support services to vulnerable families.

When campaigning for foster children to be entitled to the 30 hours, you suggested lowering the earnings cap for which families are eligible. Is this something you are still behind, and what would the money be used for now that the Government has changed the rule to allow foster children to take up the extended entitlement?

I campaigned for the foster thing very hard. It was the first victory of the select committee because the Government changed the rule.

What I do not understand about the 30 hours a week is why we don’t give it to people who are not working. We give them 15 hours. So, if there is a single parent who can’t work, every evidence shows it would be beneficial having her/his child in childcare; why on earth can’t we offer that person the 30 hours? I can’t understand it. The threshold should be lowered to pay for it. In my Rowntree speech, I included the figures*.

It’s a crazy situation where parents on very low incomes, not working, can’t take up the 30 hours of funded childcare, yet if you are an MP with a child you are below the £100,000 threshold so you get the 30 hours. Tell me how that works? That is wrong.

Do you recognise that the 30 hours is underfunded in the majority of local authority areas?

There should be a National Audit Office inquiry a year into the policy to see whether or not there is underfunding, and if there is, by how much and in what areas. They need to speak to local authorities and childcare providers. I think that’s the solution. I don’t think you can prove it now as it varies.

We should be looking at this as a committee too, but that is what the NAO is there for.

 

*During his Rowntree speech, Robert Halfon suggested dropping the eligibility cap for the 30 hours from £100,000 to £65,000. He said this would free up £150m.

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