My Lords, I join all those who have congratulated the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, on initiating this very important debate.
It is true that many people were disappointed that the Government's recent 14 to 19 White Paper did not go further down the line of Tomlinson and introduce an overarching diploma for the 14 to 19 stage of education, combining vocational and academic learning. I believe that that argument has its merits but I also believe that the GCSE and A-level system also has its merits. The challenge now is to ensure that the vocational diploma being introduced is not seen as a second-class route or a route for less able young people.
But we do not need to be pessimistic. There is a growing momentum, a shift in values, which is detectable in the media, in the classrooms and in the boardrooms of employers across the country. This movement is beginning to look upon vocational learning as an esteemed and valid option. I believe that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the academic snobbery of which this country has in the past fallen foul.
To achieve this, however, we need to move away altogether from the distinction between vocational and academic learning. A degree in law is a vocational qualification, as is an NVQ in customer service, a technical certificate in football coaching and a medicine degree.
The truth is that the skills gap faced by the UK, in comparison to our European counterparts, and the implications that this has for the productivity of the UK economy, have brought home to us the value of vocational learning. We have realised that we must embrace all types of learning, vocational and academic, in order to progress as individuals and as a society.
The employer-led sector skills councils are already playing a major part in this process and I should like to say a few words about SkillsActive and the sector skills council for the active leisure and learning sector, a sector which, as many noble Lords may know, is one of the areas of interest to me. I am only too aware of the need for skilled professionals to work at all levels throughout the sport and leisure industry. We need football coaches, lifeguards, skilled fitness instructors, playworkers, outdoor adventure leaders, and more. SkillsActive tells me that employers are calling for the people coming into the sector to have better team-working skills, improved communication skills, better technical and practical skills and improved customer-handling skills.
SkillsActive is working hard to develop pathways for entry to the workforce. The developments focus on foundation degrees in higher education, young apprenticeships for the 14 to 16 age group, progression routes for non-traditional learners and, potentially, adult apprenticeships for the over-25s. I welcome the Budget announcement made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor today that the Government will make available universal education and training to all those under the age of 18, with the aim of 300,000 being in apprenticeships by 2008.
A good example of young people being encouraged to remain in training is the apprenticeship programme being embraced by employers in the fitness sector. Fitness First, LivingWell and DC Leisure Management, to name but a few, are embracing the blend of vocational learning and quality work experience offered by apprenticeships for their staff. I am sure that we have all seen the television adverts and billboards for apprenticeships, and I would be interested to learn whether the take-up has increased across all sectors following that campaign.
Professionalisation of the fitness industry through the Register of Exercise Professionals, a SkillsActive company, means that young people are informed about what qualifications are valued, where they can get them and what qualities employers are looking for. That is exactly the kind of employer-led direction that many young people who may be considering leaving full-time education and training need. SkillsActive, as with the other sector skills councils in each sector of the economy, is developing a sector skills agreement between employers, government and funding partners, which will define and shape the work force for the next 10 years. That will mean that, for the first time, vocational education and training will be demand-led, and that each student can look forward to better opportunities for employment and have better incentives to participate in education and training.
The sport and leisure sector has the power to engage with young people at the 16 to 19 stage, more so than any other sector of which I know. A great example of the power of sport to inspire disengaged young people is the DfES scheme "Playing for Success", where the medium of football, rugby and other sports is used as a motivational tool to help to raise literacy, numeracy and ICT standards among key stage 2 and 3 pupils who are demotivated and struggling with study.
The Child Benefit Bill, which is due to come into Committee in this House, will create a financial incentive for eligible young people to continue in full-time unwaged education and training. However, we must recognise that, for many young people, financial reward is not necessarily the big incentive. Lessons must be learnt from projects such as "Playing for Success" and, where applicable, applied to the 16 to 19 stage so that we can truly release the potential of our young people, as Tomlinson set out to do.