Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon delivered a speech to the Sixth Form Colleges Association.
Hello. I must begin by saying how sorry I am that I can’t be with you in Nottingham today.
My time is not always my own, and I was unable to avoid business in Parliament later.
But I’m pleased to be speaking to you live – the next best thing – because the Sixth Form Colleges Association is an old friend.
Bill [Watkins] and James [Kewin] gave incredible support to my work as Education Select Committee Chair, including supplying evidence and testimony for our Ten Year Plan for School and College Funding. Your instrumental ‘Create the Capital’ campaign led to the creation of the Post-16 Capacity Fund. The SFCA is not just a lobbying body - though now I’m back in government, I’m aware you do that with some tenacity. You’re also helping to transform the lives of young people in 119 institutions. The case you make for sixth form education is forthright – but it is backed by the evidence. All sixth form colleges and 16-19 academies are now judged to be good or outstanding by Ofsted. This is testament to your continuous work to maintain high standards, supporting young people in a unique environment focussed on learning at Key Stage 5.
The institutions you represent are varied, but all are engaged in helping students achieve their potential and find the right onward path. This matters most for disadvantaged young people, who receive less support and direction at home. I know that SFCA members excel in supporting these students, helping them to channel their talents into further training or skilled careers.
So let’s talk about funding. You know from our work together, I will not be complacent on this issue. I will always press the case for supporting resources for young people’s post-16 education, because it decides their immediate future as young adults.
And I believe this government is committed to investing in 16-19 education. Throughout this Parliament, we have increased overall funding for the sector with an extra £1.6 billion in 2024-25 [compared with 2021-22]. This is the biggest increase in a decade.
And this financial year [2023-24] we will invest £125 million in increasing funding rates for students in 16-19 education - something I know you have long campaigned for. This figure includes a 2.2% increase in the national funding rate to £4,642 per pupil for the 2023-24 academic year. We will also increase funding for the high value subject areas of engineering, construction and digital. This will help institutions bear the additional costs of recruiting and retaining teachers in these vocational areas.
Additionally, T Level funding rates will increase by 10% in the next academic year [2023-24]. This uplift recognises institutions’ extra costs in transitioning from other study programmes to T Levels. It will also support providers to grow their T Levels offer, and provide a wider selection of these prestigious courses.
I know these figures are not everything you have asked for. They represent the targeting of resources to where they’re most needed. As always, I remain open to your suggestions as to how we can make best use of the funding available. I reiterate, I will always battle more resources for Sixth Form Colleges and FE.
And that includes the long-standing issue of VAT. Any proposals to change the tax system would need to be considered in the context of the broader public finances. But I will keep pressing the Treasury to consider concessions on VAT for Sixth Form Colleges, similar to those in the schools sector.
As I referenced earlier, the SFCA should be rightly proud of the part it played in building the case for the Post-16 Capacity Fund. This fund is now delivering the government’s Spending Review commitment to invest a total of £238 million in post-16 providers from 2021-25. This funding will help your members and others accommodate the demographic increase in 16 to 19-year-olds, putting in place the teaching and facilities required. 46 providers have already benefited from the Fund’s £98 million spending commitment in 2021-22, including £15 million made available in 2022-23.
Earlier this month we announced over 40 projects have been successful in the latest bidding round. Around a third of these were from sixth form colleges, as well as some Sixth Form Academy converters. It’s great that so many SFCA members’ provision will be enhanced, because we know your track record of success.
We expect all places supported by the fund to be delivered for September 2024. I recognise this is challenging timeframe in which to get projects off the ground, but it’s important the money is used as is intended - to meet this demographic challenge. I understand there were some concerns about how long it took to assess bids. I have therefore asked the department to work with stakeholders to understand how we can improve the process for future capital funding programmes.
I know you want me to address the matter of defunding some applied general qualifications, including some BTECs.
Let me start by going back to basics. Our changes to post-16 qualifications are carefully designed to provide a Ladder of Opportunity for young people of all backgrounds. This means routes beyond the qualification itself to the next steps up - and ultimately to a skilled job. There is no point doing well in a qualification that doesn’t lead somewhere. It provides short term reward – well deserved by any student who’s studied hard for their assessments. But a long term problem when it comes to next steps, and how the wider world regards that accomplishment. I’m not criticising any one type of qualification here. I’m merely setting-out the basis for our approach. Some qualifications, in some subjects, needed to be retired because they had very low numbers of enrolments – in some cases none at all. I’m talking about over 5,500 such qualifications, which are no longer being funded. Other qualifications need to be retired because they lead to poor outcomes, and don’t reliably serve students’ careers and life chances in the long run.
We got businesses involved in redesigning skills qualifications because they must be fit for industry’s purposes and hold credibility. The link between the two should be implicit – technical education is nothing without the buy-in of the businesses it seeks to supply with workers. We’ve now set this principle in stone. Any technical qualification approved for future funding must be based on occupational standards codesigned with employers, and approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. This will affirm their purpose to provide the knowledge, skills and behaviours necessary for students to advance to skilled employment.
But this is not, as has sometimes been suggested, the end of BTECs at Level 3. While the name will no longer exist, these qualifications can be reformed and re-approved for funding, either as technical, or alternative academic qualifications. There remains significant scope for reformed Level 3 technical qualifications that meet the standards I’ve outlined. Above all, this is about improving the purpose and quality of qualifications.
Evidence shows that current AGQs deliver poorer outcomes than A Levels, even after controlling for differences in student backgrounds. The most recent progression data from 2018-2019 shows a less than 5% progression to higher education for numerous courses in Engineering, Business, Media, and Health & Social Care. That’s why from 2025, qualifications approved for funding as Alternative Academic Qualifications - both large and small - must demonstrate a clear and direct link to higher education, so that young people can be confident they will be well prepared for Level 4 and above. There is significant scope for AAQs to be studied alongside A levels in subjects such as Health and Social Care, Computing, uniformed protective services, Animation, engineering and Sport. They may be studied as large, stand-alone programmes in subjects such as performing arts, music technology, sports science and art & design.
T Levels are designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to enter the workplace or progress onto further technical study, and as such combine the best elements of academic and technical study for learners. We want to bring about new technical occupational entry qualifications for sectors where there are currently no T Levels. Again, this is about looking at what the economy needs, and how we can provide clear routes for young people to enter the jobs market with in-demand skills. We expect qualifications to be developed against industry-approved standards for roles such as HR support, Publishing assistant, IT software solutions technician, Animal technologist and Digital marketer.
And as the range of T Levels expands, there’ll be more and more reasons to provide them for your students. They are the new gold standard of technical education, and every one of your students deserves the opportunity to consider them as an option. T Levels have a rigour on a par with A levels, and include a meaningful 9 week placement in industry – which students tell us they love. To enable broad access to these qualifications, the T Level Transition Programme can support learners who are not ready to start the qualification to progress to T Level learning.
I don’t underestimate the challenges that this level of change brings. I know that you work closely with students, day in day out. Many them progress and prosper within the current system, and you are right to voice any concerns about how our proposed reforms may affect that. But it is also important to look at the positive outcomes in those Sixth Form Colleges adapting to the new era. Cirencester College was an early adopter of T Levels, and has since successfully scaled up their provision.
I’m grateful for your acknowledgement of the progress this government has made in addressing technical education – our efforts ‘to make this priority stick and succeed’ as Bill puts it. I know we’re all on the same side when it comes to wanting the best for students, whether they study A levels, AGQs or T Levels. For me it’s about creating a broad base to the Ladder of Opportunity, so that no young person ends their education lacking good career prospects and wondering what it was all for. I will continue to listen to the SFCA and its members on how this can be achieved.