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My Lords, I, too, very much welcome this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Monks, for introducing it in the way that he did. He gave a history of our ineptness in managing to keep vocational studies and qualifications firmly on the agenda. If noble Lords want a glimpse of what our economy will look like tomorrow, they need to look at what we are investing in skills today. There is no doubt that we are not getting it right at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, mentioned institutional failure. I want to look at the structure of the way that we work because I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that it is not just about changing apprenticeships and vocational studies but about looking right across the piece at 11 to 18 provision and beyond and trying to get a different format for providers and qualifications.
I agreed almost entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, with the exception of one of his comments. I think that we were right to expand higher education and to set the 50% target. We are still behind other nations in the number of people who go on to higher education. We went wrong in giving priority—inadvertently, I think—to the 50% target and thereby sending out a message that the other forms of provision did not matter. That was never intended but it was a consequence of establishing that priority. I learnt that in politics you cannot say that you are giving priority to one thing without sending out the message that you are giving no or less priority to another. That situation desperately needs to be remedied, but in a way we are a victim of our history, which has served us very well. We can all think back to higher education, apprenticeships and further education, and semi-skilled and unskilled work. Some people, especially those of us in a particular age range, look back to the 1950s and 1960s, when apprenticeships were stronger, and say, “We got it right then”. In a way we did, for the economy and the society that existed then. However, the economy has changed and the expectations of society and of individuals have also changed. We have carried forward with us all the prejudice and different statuses and values inherent in that system. Despite the fact that the economy and people’s aspirations have changed, we still live in the past and think that higher education is at the top of the pinnacle and the place worth going to and that apprenticeships are for those who have not got into higher education. However, we still think that they have done better than those who end up in semi-skilled and unskilled work. I am convinced that the necessary first step is to break out of that mindset.
The irony is not that we have not changed our view but that all the institutions have changed. Higher education is not like it was in the 1960s. It is broader, includes vocational work and takes in a wider group of people and helps more people to achieve their aspirations. FE has changed. It offers a far broader range of courses and serves far more people. Workplace and employment routes have also changed. We are in the same position—it is almost as though we do not catch up with life. But if noble Lords look at how higher education has changed and at what further education is doing and at the best of our employment routes, they will find the answer and the way forward. It is in that respect that I most agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said. If we address only the bits that do not work, we will constantly be trying to glue them on to the bits that we think do work. The truth is that we have never really looked at that whole package from unskilled work to higher education to see what it means. The world is not made up just of those who go to university and those who get apprenticeships; it is also made up of those who could go to university but choose not to do so and want a different route and those who at 18 or 16 do not yet have the qualifications to get them into an apprenticeship or into university.
If we are to get this right, we need to have a structure that meets the needs of all those groups—that is, from those who leave school because they have learning difficulties and gain the minimal academic qualifications to those who gain three A* at A-level, or whatever else we dream up. People have to have a choice and the route they choose must make sense to them. I think the problem is that we are too in love with universities and we do not love the alternatives quite as much. We see that reflected in the advice that we give to our own children and our friends give to their children. At the end of the day, the big test is whether we say to our bright sons and daughters who could get three A grades at A-level, “Don’t go to university. Take one of these other routes”. I shall not ask noble Lords to put their hands up but I suspect that we are not there yet. I suggest a list of component parts that need to be put in place if we are to get this right: easily understood and trusted qualifications; continuity of qualifications for a framework that does not change every 18 months; well qualified teachers, lecturers and instructors; well equipped and high-quality institutions; good progression and career opportunities; recognition by society of the worth of a course of study; and help and support in the transition from school to work. The only problem is that the only bit of the system that ticks every one of those boxes is higher education. That is why it goes from strength to strength and why I would advise my son or daughter to choose it. It is coherent and we know what it means. The challenge now is to make sure that each of those components and bits of the jigsaw are available for those who are able enough to go to university but choose not to do so, those who want to take an apprenticeship and those who at this stage in their development do not have the skills or qualifications to do it but will want to do so in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, listed the relevant reports. I was the Secretary of State for Education responsible for some parts of those reports. For some reason it is more difficult to be courageous in the skills arena than it is in many other areas of that portfolio. Therefore, I say to anyone who takes forward that agenda, “Be brave, do what you think works. Don’t look back to Tomlinson and say that you wished you had done it 10 years ago. Be consistent and stop changing your mind and link in with schools at the younger end of the age range and with the world of work at the older end”.