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Young People: Alternatives to University — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:41 pm on 23rd October 2014.

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Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative 2:41 pm, 23rd October 2014

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Monks—a leading member of the trade union movement—for focusing the attention of the House on this grave problem. He highlighted that we are all suffering under the mantra of the education system, and that mantra is three A-levels and a university. That seems to be the only pathway to success. Indeed, the previous Labour Government, as one knows, set that as a target for 50% of young people. I look on this debate as the last funeral rites of that particular policy, because that is not a sensible policy to have.

This policy has led to a great deal of graduate unemployment. If you look at the number of graduates who left in 2012, and ask what they were all doing six months later—how many were working in retail, catering, waiting or bar jobs—you will find that, of those who studied fine arts, 29% were working in those jobs; media studies, 26%; performing arts, 23%; design, 23%; sociology, 22%; law, 19%; and foreign languages, 15%. Only when you come to engineering do you get very low figures of 4% or 5%. There is therefore a huge mismatch between what students are studying and where their jobs are going to be. When you consider that students are going to leave with debts of £40,000, at some stage in the next five or 10 years reality will break in, but it will take a long time to do it.

The biggest problem facing the next Government is going to be filling the skills gap, which in our society is absolutely enormous. The Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that we will be short of 45,000 STEM graduates a year for the next five or six years. That really is a shatteringly high figure. When it comes to technicians and professions, the numbers are even larger. British industry is short at the moment of 850,000 of those. At the same time, we have 250,000 youngsters who had 11 years of free education and cannot get a job, so something has to be done. The skills gap can only be filled by a major change in schools, FE colleges and universities. I will deal first with schools.

As a result of recent policy, many schools are now dropping technical subjects below age 16. One of the adverse and painful effects of the Wolf report was to throw out a large number of technical subjects. I agree that some should have been dropped: they were rather casual and not very good; but the baby has gone out with the bath water. A range of students at 16 are now just doing basically academic GCSEs. There is a slight movement towards design and technology, but only a third of GCSE students take that exam, and most of them do the soft options of food and textiles. Only a quarter of that third do resistant materials. These figures there are really very shattering, but when it comes to other technical subjects it is worse: electronic products, only 1.4% of students; and systems and control, 0.6%. We have to give more technical, practical education to pupils below 16. It is a major priority for us.

The reason for that was touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Monks. If you compare the countries in Europe, in our country, 30% of students below 18 have some experience of technical education. In Germany it is 60%. In Austria it is 80%; Austria has the lowest level of youth unemployment in Europe and the lowest number of NEETs. It does that by stopping the national curriculum at 14 and having a series of specialist colleges. As the main founder and proponent of the national curriculum, I would now argue for the national curriculum to stop at 14 and for having specialist colleges—something to which more educational specialists are coming to agree, including Michael Wilshaw.

It has to start in schools, and this is one of the reasons why, six years ago, with Ron Dearing, I set up the process of establishing university technical colleges. I was very glad to have had the support of the noble Lord, Lord Monks, on those. These are large colleges with 600 to 800 students operating a working day from 8.30 to 5, with shorter school holidays. Crucially, for two days a week, the students make and do things with their hands and design things. I believe that learning by doing is just as important as studying. We are proud that one of the advantages of these colleges—we have 30 open at the moment, and another 30 will open in the next two years—is that, so far, not one of our students leaving at 16 or 18 has joined the ranks of the unemployed. They have got either a job or an apprenticeship, stayed on at the UTC to do A-levels, gone to another college or gone to university. That is a record that any school in England should be very proud of, and we are actually achieving it.

Alongside UTCs, we now have career colleges, which were announced last year. They deal with the non-STEM subjects. Already, within a year, three of those have been established: one in Liverpool doing catering and hospitality for students 14 to 18; one in Bromley doing catering and hospitality; and one in Oldham doing graphic art and digital technology. I ask the House to consider—and this is not really accepted by the education system so far—that we now have an education system that stretches from age four to 18; if you have that, you first have to say to yourself, “Why have exams at 16?”. There is really no need for GCSEs. The only reason for a 16 year-old exam was that was when you left school. I had to have a thing called a school certificate in 1950, and that proudly showed what I achieved. I showed that to any employer whom I went to talk to. You do not need that now, with education going on to 18. This gives us a chance to resurrect the concept and importance of the 14 to 18 stream in our schools, something that Labour almost grasped last time with the Tomlinson report.

Finally, I turn to apprenticeships. I agree very much with several of the things the noble Lord, Lord Monks, said. There are far too many apprentices between the ages of 20 and 30 at the moment. Apprenticeships are about people from 16 to 18. There, the records are, frankly, not very good. The figures on that are that at 16, there are 20,800 apprentices; it sounds like a lot, does it not? The Whips are waving to me, but if they hang on just a moment, I am about to finish. They should not be anxious; I am only the second person to speak in this debate. I will be quick. The 20,800 figure is only 3.2% of the age group. At 17, the figure is 40,000, only 6% of the age group; at age 18, the figure is 55,000, only 8.4% of the age group. Those numbers are going down. The funding system has to be looked at again to ensure that those numbers go up. Certainly, UTCs can take apprenticeships; they are the only schools in the country that do that: 50 are at the JCB Academy and another college next year is Dartford, which is going to have apprenticeships in January.

This is an important debate. The country has to accept the fact that fundamental changes have to be made in all of this area of education. We are finding that some of the senior students at UTCs at 18, having got places at universities, turn them down. They turn them down to become higher apprentices: to go to work at Rolls-Royce or Network Rail or National Grid or Babcock, where they earn £15,000 a year and immediately do foundation for degrees. After 18 months it is up to the company to decide whether, at the cost of the company, to send them to a university for an honours degree. These are the sorts of careers that we must now be establishing in all our schools.