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Apprenticeships

Part of Opposition Day — [19th Allotted Day] — Tax Fairness – in the House of Commons at 6:38 pm on 12th March 2013.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Education) 6:38 pm, 12th March 2013

We have two tasks to fulfil today and I believe that we have fulfilled them. The first, arguably the most important, was to celebrate national apprenticeship week and apprentices. We have had speeches from Members on both sides of the House doing exactly that. From the Opposition Benches we had strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). They spoke of their constituency experiences and praised those involved in delivering apprenticeships, whether SMEs, large employers, training agencies, and colleges.

Further education colleges do not get the attention and praise they deserve in this House. They are central to the delivery of the skills agenda in respect of apprenticeships. Apprenticeships deliver £3.4 billion of value to the economy, so they are not only good for the people undertaking them; they are also good for the wider economy. We have given them the praise that they deserve today, and I hope people will pay attention to the fact that there is cross-party consensus on the value of apprenticeships.

Our second task, however, is to draw attention to what more needs to be done and to what we can do better—and there is a great deal that we can do better. The BIS Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend Mr Bailey, mapped out the Committee’s important recommendations and drew attention to the core tasks we all face in raising the status of apprenticeships: the task of acquiring parity of esteem for people going through the apprenticeship pathway; and the importance of increasing capacity and the role procurement can play in that. Some Members may remember the Monty Python sketch involving a summary of Proust. My hon. Friend managed to summarise his Select Committee’s recommendations even more quickly, as I think Monty Python allowed a little longer than six minutes.

Opposition Members have critiqued the Government in a variety of ways, including by drawing attention to the worrying fall in the number of places for young people, especially those aged between 16 and 18. We have talked about the growth in apprenticeship numbers—there has been significant growth, which started well before 2010—but they include places that were rebadged, such as adult training schemes originally provided under Train to Gain. The abolition of Train to Gain may have led to the loss of as many as half a million training places, and included in the quarter of a million increase in the number of apprenticeships are a substantial number of adult apprenticeships that would previously have been classified as adult training. Adult training is important and valuable, but it is not the same as apprenticeships, as the Richard report makes clear.

We have a long way to go to deliver the quality and range of apprenticeships, particularly for young people, that the Richard review recommended. The Association of Colleges says:

“Currently there are insufficient apprenticeships available for those who want one, particularly for 16 and 17 year olds. Despite incentive programmes such as the Youth Contract, employers remain reluctant to employ ‘untested’ young people, preferring those with more experience.”

The National Apprenticeship Service has also drawn attention to the fact that there are 10 applications for every apprenticeship, so the level of unmet need is clearly significant.

We also need to take a careful look at the balance of available apprenticeships across sectors. That point was made in powerful speeches by my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and my hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). Welcome though apprenticeships may be in the fields of office work and administration, health and public services and retail and commercial enterprises, they account for 71% of all 19 to 24-year-old apprenticeship growth. There has been a recent fall in the number of construction apprenticeships and relatively modest growth in areas such as engineering. We will need greater growth in those vital sectors if we are going to help young men as well as young women and address some of the crises in youth unemployment and unemployment among black and minority ethnic communities.

There are other anxieties as well. Why in 2011-12 did achievement rates fall across all groups for the first time? The Minister must address that. How effective is the new careers advice and guidance regime in ensuring that the apprenticeship pathway is seen as a valued option for young people? The Association of Colleges says:

“As a flagship Government policy, apprenticeships must be effectively promoted. The general lack of awareness and understanding of apprenticeships amongst young people and the wider public is a serious issue.”

Several speakers on both sides of the House have mentioned the survey that found that just 7% of young people are able to name apprenticeships as a post-GCSE option. The Government must urgently address that.

Labour has a clear vision for vocational education and apprenticeships. We will introduce a technical baccalaureate at 18—a gold standard in vocational education, held in high esteem, that will command the confidence of business, parents and pupils. Through the measures outlined today we will confront head on the shortage of high-quality apprenticeships for young people. We will put business in the driving seat on skills and apprenticeships. Our taskforce, led by Professor Chris Husbands, will bring forward recommendations on apprenticeships and skills for 14 to 19-year-olds, a joined-up approach to the education and skills challenges we face as a country.

We need a stronger voice for business in delivering the skills agenda we need to compete in the global race. We need a system that is more responsive to the needs of local economies and that will drive forward the generation of new opportunities. Government procurement is one means to that end. We are confident that the procurement measures set out in our motion will do exactly what we expect them to do and will not fall foul of European rules or others.

We are looking at how to improve the quality of advice given to young people, following the shake-up of careers advice and guidance, which was heavily criticised by, among others, the Education Committee. We want to review the impact of the removal of the work experience requirement at key stage 4, which a number of Members have mentioned today. I want schools and colleges to provide apprenticeship taster days to teenagers. If pupils can take a few days out of the classroom to visit universities, I do not see why the same principle should not apply to apprenticeships. Young people from age 14 should be able to get the opportunity to visit companies that offer apprenticeships to see what is involved in the programme and understand the training and career opportunities available. That is Labour’s plan for apprenticeships, putting them at the heart of a new vision for vocational education in this country.

In this national apprenticeship week we want to see a commitment to using the powers of Government to boost apprenticeship numbers and, especially, to meet the needs of a young generation facing almost unprecedented challenges in the workplace. It is simply not good enough that just 7% of young people see apprenticeships as a post-GCSE alternative. It is not good enough that two thirds of large companies do not provide an apprenticeship programme. It is not good enough that the message on the ease of delivery of apprenticeships has not got through to nine out of 10 small and medium-sized employers. We must do better at making sure that the barriers in their way are removed.

It is simply not good enough to ignore the potential of the procurement process as an effective lever for opening up opportunities, particularly for young people, and particularly in the skills and trades that most of us recognise as being at the heart of an apprenticeship programme and that will enable us to compete in the modern economy with the developed countries that, in many cases, are providing apprenticeships at three, four or five times the rate available in this country. That is why the Opposition have put forward a motion that praises the culture of apprenticeships, wants to see more of them provided and wants to see equality of status for them. That is why I urge Members to support the motion.