Social justice radical: Robert Halfon MP


Derren Hayes speaks to Robert Halfon MP, chair of the education select committee.

Conservative MP for Harlow Robert Halfon saw off competition from a number of senior Tories including Nick Bowles, Dan Poulter and Tim Loughton to be elected as chair of the education select committee in July 2017.

Halfon has been an MP since 2010 and served as apprenticeships minister from July 2016 up to the general election in June 2017.

The 48-year-old describes himself as "no establishment man", and upon appointment as chair of the committee he vowed to "challenge ministers, leaders and the sector when needed".

Under your leadership, you said the committee would have a strong social justice focus. How have you gone about implementing that?

I want to see social justice at every stage of the education system so that all young people can get the skills and training they need to live prosperous lives. While education is the best it has ever been, social injustice is still endemic in every part of our education system.

Around 195,000 children use government-funded childcare in settings that are less than "good". Just 33 per cent of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 61 per cent of their better-off peers. A child living in one of England's poorest areas is 27 times more likely to go to an "inadequate" school than a child living in its richest areas.

The committee has launched inquiries into multi-academy trusts and apprenticeships. What issues are emerging from the evidence you have heard?

Where things have gone wrong in the academy system it is down to there not being enough checks and balances. The number of children being taught in academies has risen, as has the bureaucracy. The cost of regional school commissioners has risen 550 per cent between 2014 and 2017. I think Ofsted should have a role inspecting multi-academy trusts, but ministers disagree.

Apprenticeships work - 90 per cent of apprentices go on to a job or further education. We need more apprenticeships and we need them to go to the most disadvantaged students. We should rethink how we spend the existing £60m support fund for apprentices from the poorest areas.

Let's allow grassroots community groups, steered by organisations like the Prince's Trust, to bid for funding from this pot so that they can help young people overcome their challenges and start apprenticeships.

Are you concerned that the recent resignations of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's board and chair could undermine the government's focus on improving social mobility?

The committee has agreed to ask Alan Milburn [former chair] and Gillian Shephard [former deputy chair] to give evidence. I said in parliament that the government should use this as an opportunity to reboot work on social justice.

I think we should go back to using the term social justice rather than social mobility. Social mobility is a very Westminster term. People better understand social justice.

I would like to see a social justice commission established at the heart of Number 10, with input from the best people and organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Sutton Trust.

You used to be a minister at the Department for Education. Has that helped you in the role as chair?

Because I was a minister I understand how the DfE works. It gave me a good insight into how policy is made and the difficulties ministers face.

I really love the role and am passionate about education. I go to a local school almost every Friday to meet staff and read to children.

You have also been critical of the alternative provision (AP) in schools. How will this be addressed by the committee's inquiry on this?

This is an incredibly important inquiry as very little has been said by governments on AP. I raised it with Education Secretary Justine Greening in the summer and was pleased to see her mention it in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October.

It seems astonishing that 35 children are excluded from school every day, and the destination prospects for excluded children in alternative provision are dire - just 1.1 per cent get five good GCSEs and 63 per cent of prisoners have been in AP or excluded.

It is a scandal of our times; a modern Victorian workhouse problem.

Given that we know pretty well the kinds of children that are likely to be excluded, children in care for example, it is clear that early intervention is the answer.

The government recently published its Careers Strategy. Does this address the problems you believe exist in the education system?

It is a step forward, but I would be more radical. We need to transform careers advice into careers skills advice, avoid the duplication of the National Careers Service, Careers Enterprise Company and the like, and reallocate the many millions of pounds that go to careers and create a one-stop shop of a National Skills Service, with a Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for further education and apprenticeships, along with a careers skills passport as designed by Lord Young.

CV: ROBERT HALFON MP

  • July 2017 - Appointed chair of the education select committee
  • July 2016 - June 2017 - Apprenticeships minister, Department for Education
  • May 2015 - July 2016 - Minister without portfolio
  • May 2010 - Elected as the MP for Harlow with a majority of 8,350 (reduced to 7,031 at the 2017 general election)
  • Before politics - Attended the University of Exeter, where he read for a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics before taking a Master of Arts in Russian and East European politics

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