I decided I would become an MP aged 12, so I was a very strange child,” laughs Robert Halfon. “An MP came to my school and said the House of Commons had a thousand rooms, and I didn’t believe it and said I wanted to go. I decided on that day that the place was so amazing I was going to become an MP.”
Halfon, 52, has been the Conservative MP for Harlow, Essex, since 2010 – a former bellwether seat that has now become a Tory stronghold. Education is his mission: he briefly served as skills minister in Theresa May’s government, and has chaired the House of Commons Education Select Committee since July 2017.
His Toryism is of the blue-collar variety – Halfon was calling for the Conservatives to become the “workers’ party” years before Boris Johnson and he opposed Cameron-era policies such as the abolition of the 50p income tax rate. Though he supported Remain in the 2016 EU referendum and backed Sajid Javid in the 2019 Tory leadership election, he is considered an ally of Johnson. But his backing is not unconditional: last October, Halfon was one of only five Tory MPs to vote with Labour in favour of extending free school meals.
We speak on 2 June, the day the government announced its much-hyped “catch-up plan” for schools. The funding – £1.4bn over three years – amounted to just £50 more per pupil, and was less than a tenth of what the government’s own educational recovery adviser, Kevan Collins, said was necessary. Collins resigned that day, accusing ministers of “failing hundreds of thousands of pupils”.
Halfon isn’t quite so damning, but makes it clear that Johnson hasn’t done enough. “It’s a hefty starter rather than the main course,” he says. “Collins resigned because he thought there wasn’t going to be a main meal.”
Halfon hopes the resignation of Collins will provide “impetus for the government to come up with a proper long-term plan for education”. He is careful not to directly criticise Chancellor Rishi Sunak but his frustration with how schools have been neglected is clear.
“The government needs to make sure that education is given as much priority as health and the economy and defence. They say there’s no money, I understand it’s a very difficult climate… but they found an extra £16bn for defence, they found £800m for this new Aria research agency, they found £200m for a royal yacht to showcase business. So when they need the money, they can find it.”
With the pandemic sparking a mental health crisis among young people and set to cost school pupils an average of £40,000 each in lost future earnings, Halfon talks of the need for education to receive “a real long-term funding settlement, just as the National Health Service does”.
But it isn’t just about recovering from Covid-19. Halfon wants a fundamental education overhaul, from early-years provision to university, focused on preparing pupils for the world of work.
“I’d have children in the workplace from primary school onwards,” he insists, adding that university courses should have compulsory work placements built in, with the curriculum revamped to focus on skills. “The world is changing because of the fourth industrial revolution. It’s going to affect all of us, every job, not just manual labour. Even magazines are being written by robots. And that’s a frightening prospect.”
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For Halfon, the key to making education fit for the 21st-century digital revolution and closing the attainment gap is to stop thinking of skills training and academia as separate.
“Degree apprenticeships” – schemes offered by employers in subjects such as engineering or accountancy where students work towards a degree on the job – “are my two favourite words in the English language. If I could develop a system where the majority of students were doing degree apprenticeships, I really think we could change the world.”
Halfon suspects one enduring obstacle is the need for teachers to have university degrees, which colours their advice to students. Another is a lack of interest from MPs – the only degree-level apprentice in the House of Commons is Gillian Keegan, the minister for apprenticeships and skills.
Despite his own academic background (he studied politics at Exeter University), Halfon wants change. His maiden parliamentary speech was on skills, and he was the first MP to offer full-time apprenticeships in his office. For over a decade, he has watched successive governments fail to live up to their rhetoric on the value of vocational training.
But now, even after the chaos of the last year, he sees cause for optimism in the government’s focus on adult education, with £2.5bn allocated to lifelong learning loans.
“If you think about it, it’s quite incredible. This is a Tory government, and what was the centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech? It was literally skills.”
And what of Gavin Williamson himself, the Education Secretary who presided over last year’s A-level algorithm debacle, who failed to provide equipment for online learning when schools closed, and who lost the battle with the Treasury to secure adequate school funding? When asked to mark his performance out of ten, Halfon ducks the question.
“I learned from the Ofqual thing last year not to give grades out.”
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?