According to the latest data available, at the end of 2005 there were 78,900 16 and 17-year-olds participating in an apprenticeship in England, compared with 34,100 in 1997. My priority for the current comprehensive spending review is to offer an apprenticeship place to any qualified 16 to18-year-old who wants one.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. As a former apprentice in the construction industry, I strongly believe in the apprenticeship scheme. One of the ways that we can best encourage youngsters to engage in apprenticeship schemes is to allow them to sample what being an apprentice is like while they are still at school. What progress is the Secretary of State making in involving schools in the scheme that allows pupils a 50-day experience of being an apprentice?
We have made a great deal of progress since 2003 when we introduced work-based learning so that, as part of the 14-to-19 agenda, youngsters start going out to businesses and companies in their constituencies—or, rather, in their area. [Interruption.] Well, MPs are not getting that young. Youngsters therefore experience what work is like, which might give them the opportunity to decide on what their future career should be. That is one of many elements of policy that give choice and diversity to youngsters and ensure that they get a proper grounding before leaving school.
I completely support all that goes on with regard to apprenticeship schemes for those aged 16 and above, but I wish to draw the Secretary of State's attention to something that is still a big problem in this country: how to tie in young boys aged about 12 and upwards who do not believe that academic routes are the routes for them but who find that schools so specialise in academic subjects that they are left out—so they truant or leave school early. That is one of the major issues that we have found as we go around communities.
I ask the Secretary of State to visit Holland, if he has not already done so. I deeply admire the Dutch for embedding their vocational training in schools, and their truancy levels are much lower than ours. A Dutch educationist said to me that the difference between them and the United Kingdom is that they are just as intelligent, computer-literate and educated, but they also believe that people have to build the houses that they live in, carry out the plumbing work and do the wiring as well, and that they celebrate that rather than make it a second-class occupation.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the problems that we have traditionally had in respect of vocational qualifications. They are particularly to do with the parity of esteem argument, as academic qualifications are seen as infinitely superior to vocational qualifications. That is in large part due to cultural issues, and we can do a lot in schools to address that. Let me say something about the introduction of diplomas, although they come in a bit later—at 14 to 19—and the right hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about youngsters as young as 12, and boys in particular, having to be switched on to learning. That is a general point that applies to both academic and vocational education.
I cannot emphasise enough the significance of the introduction of diplomas. They are not vocational diplomas. There is that mixture of the theoretical and the practical, which is what we have lacked in this country for so long, and those diplomas, along with apprenticeships and work-placed training as accredited training, can provide the kind of choice that our youngsters need. I said a lot yesterday on issues to do with young boys—working-class boys in particular—and trying to close the attainment gap at age 14, especially in English, as in other subjects we do not have that gender gap. All those areas are important and we are looking closely at the lessons that can be learned from what happens in the Netherlands.