As always, Mr Bayley, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; I have done so on a number of occasions. I give thanks—spiritual or otherwise—for having been given the opportunity to introduce this debate, which is particularly timely given that we have just had a series of apprenticeship results and some major Government announcements on employment.
As I hope any MP would do, I want to start by singing the praises of my region and saying what it can do about employment. The north-west and its young people benefit from having a diverse, dynamic region with strong areas of sectoral employment. It is strong in manufacturing and in the service and creative industries, many of which are based in my constituency in Blackpool.
These issues are not just of historic importance. We have a proud history of achievement and innovation in industrial apprenticeships, but we also have new developments coming on stream. I particularly want to pay tribute to all the work that is being done to bring the BBC to Media City in Salford, Greater Manchester, thus building on the legacy of Granada Television. Of course, all such developments offer opportunities for young people to get not only skills but jobs in the region. The retention of young people in the region will build and strengthen our potential in the years to come.
Excellent work is being done to attract young people into fulfilling careers by a number of businesses, both large and small. In particular, I want to bring to the attention of Members today the work that is being done at BAE Systems. In my constituency, hundreds of people are directly employed at BAE and a large number of people are employed indirectly by BAE. Of course, the BAE apprenticeship scheme is frequently hailed as one of the best in the sector, because it gives young people real career opportunities that are comparable to those enjoyed by graduates.
In 2009, in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on skills, we conducted a major inquiry into progression through apprenticeships. One of the most vivid pieces of evidence was given by a young apprentice—a young man—who had actually worked for BAE at Warton. He had just completed his course and acquired a very good degree. He spoke before all the current discussion about fees in higher education and made the point that, as a result of being employed by BAE, he had come out of the system with a good degree, which would enhance his career prospects within BAE and without incurring the debt that some of his school contemporaries had incurred.
Of course, in the Blackpool area, we also have the nuclear skills complex, or academy. Again, it would be fair to say that, after a number of years of quiescence, the ability of that academy to take on young people has expanded. That is important to people in Blackpool, because a number of our people have been employed at the Springfields nuclear site.
I pay tribute to the National Apprenticeship Service in the north-west for working tirelessly to encourage businesses to take on apprentices and to encourage young people in the north-west generally to consider the options offered by apprenticeships. In 2009-10, more
than 20,000 young people in the north-west started apprenticeships, and more than 500 of them were in Blackpool.
As MPs, we see the importance of apprenticeships most vividly when we go to particularly successful companies in our constituencies. Last week, I had the privilege of visiting a company called Ameon, which is a major construction-based business on the edge of my constituency in Blackpool. I quote from The Blackpool Gazette:
“The firm, which boasts a turnover of more than £20m, has created six new electrical apprenticeships…awarded to teenagers from Blackpool and Manchester”.
While I was at Ameon and talking to its very dynamic managing director, Robin Lawson, I was introduced to two young men who had been employed by Ameon and who had just completed their part-time degrees at the university of Central Lancashire. Again, those young men had gone through that system without incurring debt.
Of course, the north-west also benefits from a vibrant collection of universities, further education colleges, schools and sixth forms, including many in my own area. I pay tribute to the North West Universities Association for its sterling work in establishing the link between schools and universities.
As many north-west MPs know, there are also many excellent schemes that can offer young people opportunities to train and learn on the ground. For example, there are opportunities with some of the local volunteering teams. I found myself working on such an initiative with the Blackpool Circus school—a school that is very appropriate for Blackpool. Those teams help many young people into volunteering and training opportunities. The Get Started unit in Blackpool, which was funded by the local enterprise grant initiative established by the previous Government, has helped many young people in Blackpool into jobs and careers. Many of them work for small businesses or have become sole traders.
Like many local newspapers, my own local newspaper—The Blackpool Gazette—launched a campaign earlier this year to find 100 apprenticeships in 100 days. I was very pleased to attend the launch of that campaign and the newspaper achieved its target.
Those are all good things, but it would not be reasonable if I did not say that there are big problems in the north-west, particularly for young people in the region who are looking for career opportunities. Many local authorities in the north-west were hit with a double whammy in the cuts programme: first, the cuts last year in area-based grants and, secondly, the general comprehensive spending review cuts, which hit the north-west particularly hard. Area-based grants were historically used—certainly in my own local authority—to support youth work schemes and the voluntary sector. As a result of the cuts to those grants, the position is now nigh-on catastrophic.
On top of the cuts to area-based grants, there has been an 80% cut in the teaching grant in higher education and a 25% cut in capital funding for further education over four years. Again, those cuts could put severe pressures on schemes and training opportunities for young people.
The most striking and difficult change has been that in the all-age careers service. The Minister will know that I have paid tribute to him on previous occasions for the work that he has done on that service, so I hope that he will not take amiss what I am about to say; I say it not to him but to the Department for Education as a whole. As a result of removing the potential—not the actuality, but the potential—for face-to-face advice and closing off the vocational route for many people, I believe that there will be severe difficulties.
In Blackpool, as in many other places, the Connexions team has already been halved as a result of the budget reduction caused by the cuts programmes that I have talked about. I will just give some statistics on the effects of those cuts: £2 million was taken out of the budget by the outgoing Conservative administration in Blackpool earlier this year, which was a 50% cut; there was a 46% cut in full-time youth workers; a 48% cut in part-time youth workers; a 59% cut in Connexions posts in schools and colleges; and a 61% cut in posts for people working with young people not in education, employment or training. Of course, none of those cuts is exactly good news for young people and their careers.
In its 2009 report, the all-party group on skills highlighted the importance of quality information, advice and guidance to help young people towards vocational routes. That importance was also recognised in the Department for Children, Schools and Families “Quality, Choice and Aspiration” report, with which my hon. Friend Mr Wright was closely associated when he was in government. The Department for Education said in the past that it would, in principle, provide £200 million for careers provision via Connexions funding, but that funding seems to have vanished from the new service.
In June 2011, the Minister of State, Department for Education, Mr Gibb responded to a written parliamentary question that I had submitted. He stated:
“The Department for Education is providing funding through the Early Intervention Grant to support access to impartial careers guidance for young people in the academic year 2011-12.”—[Hansard, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c.56-57.]
However, the Department’s website says that the early intervention grant is there to fund Sure Start centres, free child care for disadvantaged two-year-olds, short breaks for disabled children and targeted support for families with multiple problems. One is bound to ask just what will be left for careers provision after the money has been divided between all those worthy causes. I hasten to suggest that it is not the loaves and fishes fund, and I do not think that Ministers have yet demonstrated the ability to walk on water, so in both those respects the Department needs to look carefully and rapidly at the negative implications of the current situation.
The axing of the education maintenance allowance will also be a serious blow to young people right across the north-west. I met with young people from my constituency who came down to Westminster to protest against the abolition of the EMA, and they echoed the sentiment that I am sure many of my colleagues throughout the north-west have heard: the allowance was vital in that it gave them the opportunity to stay on in education. A survey that I conducted in local colleges showed that half the respondents felt that losing their EMA would
affect their future plans, and I know from meetings with people at Blackpool and the Fylde college and with students in the sixth-form college that the potential the EMA offered was really valued. It remains to be seen whether the replacement that the Government have put in place will be adequate for purpose.
The Government decided not to continue the future jobs fund, despite having indicated before the general election that they might do so, and despite enthusiasm for the scheme. I saw in my constituency how well the scheme worked, with innovative placements such as a group of young people being given apprenticeship roles at Blackpool football club. I am not passing judgment too soon I hope, but it remains to be seen how such proposals will work out via the Work programme. The Government have not yet, it seems, got a handle on how to tackle the growing problems of youth unemployment, particularly in the north-west.
I want to turn to apprenticeships, because despite the positive progress being made—again, I pay tribute to the work being done by all concerned—there remains in the north-west a lack of apprenticeships for young people. The head of the National Apprenticeship Service himself admitted at a recent conference that there remained a chronic lack of apprenticeship places for school and college leavers. However, it is, of course, a question of pull as well as push. There can be apprenticeships—indeed, the Government have increased the number of places—but the question is: how will they be filled?
A City and Guilds survey at the beginning of this year showed that 31% of businesses in the north-west felt that in the current economic climate it was too risky to take on apprentices. That was the highest percentage among the English regions. At a time when the Government have ended the future jobs fund and the previous Government’s guarantees on opportunities for 16 to 24-year-olds, there is a real danger of young people being nudged away from training and from investment in their careers.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Education has been distracted—that is the kindest word to use—over the micro-management of schools and has allowed a crowded and confused marketplace to surface for young people, with academies, free schools, studio schools, university technical colleges and free colleges all jostling in the mix. Is that not a distraction from what should be our clear goal of providing good quality vocational education to those who wish to take it up? How does that haphazard environment fit in with Alison Wolf’s recommendations to the Secretary of State on improving vocational employment? The Government need to strengthen and make clearer their plan to promote apprenticeship take-up, with a much stronger emphasis on work-based learning.
On the use of the voluntary sector, I can cite examples from my own constituency. Volunteer groups are involved with Stanley park. Army cadets play a major part in the organisation of the armed forces and veterans weeks. Fantastic work with disadvantaged young people is being done by the Prince’s Trust and the Lancashire fire and rescue service—again linked with Blackpool football club. All those initiatives provide tasters that offer young people pointers and other outlets for their careers; but ultimately, we have to get right the structures for that process and for that progression to apprenticeships or
to whatever career option. University technical colleges might well have a role to play in that, but it is important that we have clarity.
The Association of Colleges just yesterday produced a booklet entitled “Sticks & Carrots: Will Every 16 and 17-Year-Old Stay in Education or Training?” It rightly draws attention to the four things that are key to the policy being best implemented:
“Consistent and sufficient funding…to help Colleges and other education institutions support those who stay in full-time education… Good and appropriate careers advice—
“requires the support of Ofsted and teachers in order to create rigorous standards for Information, Advice and Guidance… The right learning opportunities - We should not assume that all young people wish to stay in ‘academic’ education”.
The final key thing mentioned is financial support and transport, which picks up the point I made a few moments ago.
It is also important to take note of what the report says about the take-up and supply of apprenticeships. It states that the majority of new places have been for adults between the ages of 18 and 24, and that fewer than 5% of 16 and 17-year-olds are apprentices.
We need stronger pathways for work-based learning for young people in the north-west. Much more can be done, and is being done, to promote such work-based training, and I want to refer briefly to the work of the Manufacturing Institute, which is an independent charity founded by north-west manufacturers and universities. The institute’s “Make It” campaign has been working with some 20,000 young people across the north-west, and its partners include Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens, Tetra Pak and James Walker. It aims to give young people in schools and colleges a taster experience, and in the past year, eight enterprise challenge days were sponsored by manufacturing partners and a further three days held in partnership with Education Business Solutions in Manchester high schools.
There are good things going on, but the message needs to go out from the Government to young people in the north-west that vocational education and qualifications are truly valued by them. I am afraid that the hoo-ha around the Secretary of State’s English baccalaureate and the critical comments by Government Members about vocational education have not entirely helped in that respect. The Government need to listen and to get the various agencies to engage with schools more, to give them practical assistance to promote face-to-face encounters and instruction and also some funding, otherwise this will end up like the freedom to dine at the Ritz. The Government need to look thoughtfully at what Wolf says about matching work-based learning to far more partnerships with the voluntary sector and schools.
We need to ensure that teachers understand more clearly what vocational educational routes are out there. Sadly, much of the research and many of the surveys that have been done show that there is still a long way to go in persuading many teachers that a vocational educational route is right for their students. That is especially true in places such as the north-west. We have three types of area challenge. City regions such as Manchester and Liverpool have strong and persistent NEETs levels and skills shortages alongside ambitious regeneration plans. In peripheral seaside and coastal
towns such as Blackpool, transients—young people coming into and leaving the town—are key in terms of skills levels. We also have second-level towns and in-between areas, which will not necessarily benefit from the critical mass of jobs and opportunities in the travel-to-work areas. All those areas must have progression and links.
Tony Blair talked about “education, education, education”, but I believe that our watchwords—the Minister has already heard this, so he will have to forgive me—should be “progression, progression, progression”. Our young people in the north-west must be equipped for a working life in which they will change jobs or careers probably four or five times. The situation was not like that for my father, who signed up as an engineering apprentice just before the second world war at the age of 14 with the famous engineering company Crossley and was told by my grandfather that he would have a job for life. Young people will have to be adept at picking up bespoke skills on the job and acquiring the enabling and personal skills that will ease subsequent transfers and take them toward opportunities that include self-employment as well as working for traditional large employers.
To address all that, we need not just proper resources but a proper strategy for progression. So far, the Government have done too little to make those links and enable our young people and their talents to stay in or come back to the north-west. Joined-up pathways to career opportunities will be key to a combination that will enable the north-west’s young people and economy to enjoy the fulfilment, dynamism and achievement to which its history points it.