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My Lords, we have changed the key stage 4 curriculum, creating greater flexibility, allowing students the opportunity to take a larger range of qualifications, including greater practical elements of study. From September, all pupils will learn about work and enterprise. The Increased Flexibility Programme has given over 90,000 young people high quality vocational learning opportunities and new GCSE vocational subjects were introduced in September 2002. The Tomlinson working group is considering a longer term reform of vocational learning.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but it does not altogether meet my concerns. Is the Minister aware of the concerns voiced by teachers at the beginning, when the Advanced Vocational Certificate in Education was introduced a few years ago? Does she realise that teachers feared then and now that this new vocational qualification would be far too much like A-levels and would not develop the potential skills of students who do not respond to A-level courses? Is she also aware that the numbers taking such courses are falling and that very few are doing well, particularly boys?
My Lords, in 2003 we saw a 25 per cent increase in the numbers taking the AS and A-level vocational examinations, which is testimony to the fact that they are becoming more popular. However, I am aware that take-up is low and we are looking, as the noble Baroness will know, to redevelop the structure from 2005, which we think will further encourage student take-up and recognition that these are serious vocational qualifications.
My Lords, I must declare an interest, having chaired the Paul Hamlyn Foundation's National Commission on Education, which reported in 1993. Is the Minister aware that in that report we recommended a change in the qualifications and examination structure that was similar to that recently suggested by the former chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, to enable people in appropriate circumstances to take a combination of academic and vocational subjects? We also promoted strongly the principle of modern apprenticeships, coupled with the opportunity for those people taking those apprenticeships to acquire higher qualifications when doing so. What will be the Government's approach in relation to those issues?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord's work on behalf of the Hamlyn Foundation. Noble Lords will be aware that we have a high target to ensure that as many young people as possible take part in modern apprenticeships. We have a target for 28 per cent of people in 2004 to enter modern apprenticeships before they are 22 years old. We wish to enable our young people to have the right mix of ability and options—a point well made by the noble Lord. Hence, that is a critical part of the Tomlinson review.
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that it is important that these vocational qualifications are seen as part of career progression? Is she aware that, of those who attain level 3 vocational qualifications, which is equivalent to A-level, only 45 per cent move on to university, compared with 92 per cent of those who attain two good A-levels?
My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point about the need to recognise the value and importance of vocational qualifications and to look to our higher institutions to provide opportunities for people who have the good qualifications to come in. For example, foundation degrees are critical in enabling people to pursue their vocational qualifications at as high a level as they wish to do so.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a consultant to the City and Guilds Institute. Is the Minister giving sufficient weight to the point raised by my noble friend Lady Brigstocke about the academic nature of some of these qualifications? The purpose of such qualifications is to attract those people who are not academic by nature. An academic approach is the quickest turn-off and reducer of recruits that exists.
My Lords, the noble Lord made some important comments and I apologise if I did not give sufficient weight to the particular point that he mentioned. In my answer I was trying to cover a number of issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, rightly raised. We wish to ensure that vocational A-levels are regarded as serious qualifications, but, of course, they will not provide all the occupational skills needed to train a student for employment, but rather provide a broad induction to the vocational area that a student may wish to pursue. The noble Lord made an important point about recognising how critical it is to ensure that young people not only have the opportunity but understand the relevance and importance of taking up such qualifications and that we regard them—and the skills that they obtain—as highly as possible.
My Lords, can the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to encourage young children to consider the option of social care as a career? I understand that an information technology certificate is taken at about the age of 16, which is one pathway into information technology. Is the Minister considering something similar for children in terms of social care, and does she consider that that might also have the benefit of helping to identify the children who are already caring at home for mentally ill adults or others who need the help of their children?
My Lords, certainly in terms of the vocational studies in which young people are invited to participate, we are looking at what I have previously described in your Lordships' House as the "scaffold" of opportunities for working in social care both with children and with our elderly population. That is an important part of the work that we are doing and, as we develop the Tomlinson proposals, we shall consider it more carefully.
With regard to the noble Earl's second point concerning young carers, he will know very well that the average age of a young carer is about 11. However, many children carry huge responsibilities for their families, and it is incumbent upon us, as part of our strategy for children, to support those children as effectively as we can, not least, as the noble Earl said, in recognising the skills that they may have acquired in doing that work.
My Lords, I refer the noble Baroness to my previous answers about the Tomlinson review. In looking across the whole gamut of our 14 to 19-strategy, we shall consider how the examination system fits into, and forms part of, that strategy. I have made clear many times in your Lordships' House the critical importance of what we describe as the "gold standard" of the A-level, but it is important to ensure that other qualifications are recognised appropriately. As I receive more information, I shall write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that in instances such as nursing training, many young people are prevented undertaking that training because of the very high academic standards that are now required, yet many of our very good nurses did not reach, and never would have reached, those standards? While we would like those who are capable of attaining A-levels to have a good career structure ahead of them, is it not time to introduce a second level of qualifications, more or less in line with that of the older-style apprenticeships, which might help to address the desperate shortage of National Health Service nurses?
My Lords, I shall ensure that my noble friend has the opportunity to respond directly on the issue of nurses and their critical importance to the National Health Service, which we all appreciate. Unpicking the noble Baroness's question slightly, I shall comment on two issues. First, we must ensure that all those who are capable of gaining the qualifications have the opportunity to do so. Too many young people still believe that they are not capable of doing so and therefore do not undertake them. We must ensure that they are given the necessary opportunities. Secondly, within our modern apprenticeship work, we must think more creatively about the kind of qualifications that are required and we must allow people to enter academic life or training through different routes—not least through a modern apprenticeship scheme.
My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord about the critical importance of industry making contact with schools. We believe that about 50 per cent of primary schools have some contact with industry, and that is very heartening. I hope that that figure will rise. Certainly, as we respond to the Davies report in particular, enterprise education will take place in secondary schools. All our key stage 4 students—that is, 14 to 16 year-olds—will be provided with the equivalent of five days' enterprise education. All those factors are important, but nothing beats young people having the opportunity to gain the kind of work-related experiences that we shall see in the curriculum, nor, indeed, the contact with local business and industry which can enhance their opportunities and their understanding of potential career prospects.