Annual Apprenticeship Conference 2024 speech

From: Department for Education
Published: Thu Feb 29 2024

Minister Robert Halfon's virtual speech to the Annual Apprenticeship Conference 2024 in Birmingham (27 February 2024).

Hello - I'm sorry I can't be with you today as planned.

I hope you've had a brilliant couple of days discussing every aspect of apprenticeships delivery.

I want to say thank you to Shane [Mann] and FE Week for organising this conference.

I always say that FE Week makes the life of a Skills Minister difficult - but it makes complacency impossible!

Whenever I want to find out what's going on in the DfE, I read FE Week.

My whole political life has been about championing apprenticeships and skills.

I've done this because I've seen the good they can do in my own constituency.

They are the greatest tool we have for advancing social justice.

A range of complementary training options, from Level 2 to degree level, will allow people of all backgrounds to climb the Ladder of Opportunity - gaining the skills they need to improve their income and their future.

Recently I took a journey from West to East, from St Austell to Ipswich.

The Proclaimers may have walked 500 miles, but I covered 843 over the course of National Apprenticeship Week.

I met apprentices, employers and training providers who were full of enthusiasm for the programme, keen to demonstrate their skills and teaching.

They really want skills education and industry to succeed in this country.

More importantly, they are putting in the hard yards to make it happen.

My 3 Goals for Apprenticeships

The government's reforms and investment have seen a transformation of the skills landscape.

This has already brought about incredible dividends.

There are now nearly 690 apprenticeship standards - each one designed by employers with IfATE to teach the skills that employees really need.

While a lot has been achieved - with the help of many here today - there is still much to do.

My 3 goals I'd like to discuss today are:

  • Building an Apprenticeships Nation
  • Prioritising quality over quantity, and
  • Making sure apprenticeships serve social justice, by bringing opportunities to those who need them most.

Building an Apprenticeships Nation

Building an Apprenticeships Nation means integrating apprenticeships into the way that everyone sees work, study and recruitment. They are not a minority pursuit for people who didn't choose university, or just a pathway dedicated to ancient, guilded trades (though they're great for those too!) They are about spreading opportunities to enter every trade possible, in away that allows the employer to specify your training. Currently nearly 70% of occupations can now be entered via an apprenticeship - and we intend to build on this! Apprenticeships should be part of the conversation at every Sixth Form careers fair, and whenever businesses seek to hire specific skills.

The Levy

To build an Apprenticeships Nation, these qualifications needed to be fully and intelligently financed. We met this challenge by asking the employers with the deepest pockets to contribute to high quality training. The Apprenticeship Levy came into effect in 2017; it has allowed us to double apprenticeships spending in cash terms, from £1.2 billion in 2010-11 to £2.5 billion in 2022-23. To keep pace with the cost of living last year, IfATE awarded funding uplifts to almost 80 apprenticeship standards, by an average of 35%. And to ensure apprentices gain vital skills, we recently increased the apprenticeship funding rate for English and maths tuition by 54%.

In 2024-25, we will spend £2.7 billion on high-quality apprenticeships.

I'm passionate about the Apprenticeship Levy, and not just because of the money it brings in!

Putting a statutory obligation on big companies to contribute to the programme has really helped shift the culture in how apprenticeships are perceived and who offers them. It's why I don't agree with calls to spend the Levy on other skills training. Fewer apprentices would be employed, with more people doing shorter qualifications of varying quality. Using half of Levy funds in this way could have resulted in around 60% fewer apprentice starts last academic year.

I'm determined that it will remain the Ronseal Levy that does what it says on the tin: supports employers to take-on more apprentices and invest in the high quality training needed for a skilled workforce.

Degree Apprenticeships

An Apprenticeships Nation means extending this training up to degree level, at the best universities. Degree apprenticeships are so important because of their unique offer. Students benefit from brilliant collaborations between top businesses and world-class universities which fit them for a great career, pay them a wage, and don't charge tuition fees. This is particularly valuable to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. A degree apprenticeship can act as a launchpad to a highly-paid job for someone without any background in that industry. Level 6 apprentices have median earnings of over £34,500 once they complete - demonstrating just how valuable these workers are to employers.

Over 222,000 people have started on these prestigious training pathways since 2015. That's remarkable - but I'm determined that these opportunities reach many, many more people. It's why we've made up to £40 million available for universities to expand degree-level apprenticeships.

Careers Education

But to really build an Apprenticeships Nation, we must continue our revolution in careers provision.

School pupils should have awareness of apprenticeships, and where they can take you, well before their tertiary choices at 16. That is why we strengthened the provider access legislation, known as the Baker Clause, via the Skills and Post-16 Education Act in 2022. We now stipulate that every school must provide pupils with a minimum of six education and training provider encounters, to build their understanding of what technical routes can offer.

I am determined that students have more opportunities to see industries and occupations up close, and to learn about the benefits of technical routes and skills education. Over 95% of schools and colleges are now part of The Careers & Enterprise Company's network of Careers Hubs, working with almost 400 major employers. Our ASK programme is raising older pupils' awareness of the benefits of apprenticeships and T Levels. It had 625,000 interactions with young people in over 2,400 schools in 2022/23.

I've met with Sir Martyn Oliver since his appointment as the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, and he is fully onboard with this vital aspect of skills reform - that careers education fully educate pupils on all their options.

Quality over Quantity ..but we still want more!

My next goal for apprenticeships is quality over quantity. There is no point wracking-up huge numbers of participants if the training people receive is not second to none.

To raise the prestige of vocational, technical education, we must ensure that these employer-led qualifications are to the highest standard.

If you compare pre-2010 apprenticeships with 2024 apprenticeships, you're not comparing apples and pears. You're comparing apples with tortoises.

There were fewer than half a million people participating in apprenticeships in 2009/10.

Those training programmes had no requirement to last at least a year, and no minimum guided learning hours.

Last year over 750,000 were participating - and training to the more rigorous, industry-designed standards we introduced from 2014.

I know participation has fluctuated over the last decade, as high quality standards and the Levy were introduced.

But quality matters more than quantity because it serves everyone in the long term - businesses, the economy and learners' outcomes. Quality will help us to achieve our ambition of reaching a 67% achievement rate for apprenticeship by 2025.

Government is sometimes accused of not thinking about the long term.

I'm glad we did 10 years ago, at about the same time as the first Annual Apprenticeship Conference was being organised.

Now, although I prioritise quality over quantity, quantity comes a close second.

This academic year we've already seen over 160,000 apprenticeship starts, up 3% on the same period the previous year. Among those, the number of young people under 19 starting an apprenticeship is up by 6%, to over 50,000 starts. Overall, 65% of these starts are at Levels 2 & 3 - the crucial point at which young people may finish their education. An apprenticeship allows them to build to higher levels later if they chose.

There have been nearly 27,000 apprenticeship starts at degree level in the first quarter, up 4% on same period last year. And the number of achievements is up 22% so far this academic year, with 37,400 people passing their apprenticeship.

But that's not enough!

It won't surprise you to hear I want as many people as possible to do apprenticeships.

Social justice

My final goal for apprenticeships is that they serve social justice.

This is a core part of my personal mission in politics, and why I have such enthusiasm for this training.

It is not fair that opportunities to enter good work, with progression and a rising pay scale are often not given to those who need them most.

Apprenticeships provide a Ladder of Opportunity for people to climb to a better life - that's why I champion them.

I'm keen that we present apprenticeships to all kinds of candidates as an attractive, supported option. This includes young people who've spent time in care, and haven't enjoyed a stable family life to guide decisions about their future. In August we raised the bursary for care-experienced apprentices to £3,000. These young people can now begin their training confident they can cover the living costs usually met by family. This is on top of the £1,000 available to both the employer and training provider who take on a care-experienced apprentice. It's total of £5,000 additional funding for each young person who's spent time in care, which will boost these apprentices' outcomes.

We know there are specific challenges to hiring younger apprentices, and those with health and learning conditions. That's why we also provide an additional £1,000 of funding to employers and training providers who hire apprentices aged 19-24 with an Education, Health and Care Plan.

The same subsidy is also available for hiring younger apprentices aged 16 to 18.

And to further assist hiring candidates with an EHC plan, we have recently lowered the English and Maths requirements to ‘entry level 3' for these apprentices.

I also want to explore how we can help more disabled people to progress and complete their apprenticeship. That's why we've begun a pilot scheme to help training providers offer quality mentoring to these individuals. It will give participants tailored support from someone who understands the apprenticeship programme, as well as their individual needs and circumstances.

Social justice means making sure apprenticeships are offered as a choice to everyone who could benefit from them - particularly those unlikely to apply unless encouraged by their school or college.


We set lofty goals when we began reforming the apprenticeships programme 10 years ago.

I'm determined that we continue to set our sights high, to make apprenticeships better and better throughout the 2020s and 2030s.

I have a picture in my office of John F Kennedy - the 35th President of the United States.

Back in the 1960s, he also had high ambitions.

He said: “We choose to go to the Moon … and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

His point was - that's what makes it worthwhile! We could spend less money and time and effort, but we wouldn't have a space programme - or an apprenticeships programme - to be proud of.

I know this because I've been campaigning for these reforms for a long time.

We're doing it not because it's easy, but because it's hard.

We know that every apprenticeship undertaken, and every apprenticeship taken-on, means better prospects and security for the apprentice, and better business outcomes for the employer.

Let me leave you with that high-flying thought.

Thank you, and I hope you enjoy today's conference.

Company: Department for Education

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