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My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Monks, for leading this timely debate, in which I have learnt a lot. Perhaps I may speak rather anecdotally, and from where I come—Coventry. It is a city with two universities, both of which have an extraordinarily impressive history in relating to local businesses and developing qualifications, teaching and research that serve the world of work. The local economy of Coventry would have been in great difficulty in recent years without the excellent and genuinely multilayered provision from Coventry University and Warwick University, and I join the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in his congratulations and deep appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, for his work in this area.
Nevertheless, senior businesspeople in the city repeatedly tell me that there is still a serious gap in skills and that their businesses are undernourished without the young people with the skills and capacities that are needed. At the same time—this reflects a reality that the noble Lord, Lord Monks, referred to at the beginning—my diocese, or my patch, has worryingly high numbers of young people not in education, training or employment. The reasons for that are complex but many of the young people I see who are not in work, education or training seem to be themselves undernourished, lacking the sorts of skills and capacities that will help them to find the employment that will raise their dignity and give them the possibility of a fulfilled future.
Perhaps I may share with the House some of my findings on my travels around Coventry and Warwickshire, including visits to schools, conversations with business leaders and interactions with further education colleges and universities. I have four observations.
First, the range of post-16 educational opportunities, even as they are now, need to be made known to young people and their parents at the earliest possible point. Primary education should begin to open up the range of possibilities available to young people so that multiple routes into post-16 education and employment— traineeships, apprenticeships and further education courses—can be appreciated. To repeat a point that has been made, these have equal nobility and value to the route that is more familiar to many of our teachers and certainly to us—that is, GCSEs, A-levels and university.
Secondly, I very much appreciated the passionate comments of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about further education colleges. However, from my own experience in Coventry and Warwickshire, they seem to be unsung heroes of our education system. I have been deeply impressed by the young people I have met in local FE colleges and by the liberation that their transformative education is giving them. I have heard many stories and they have been very moving.
As I look around, further education colleges seem to be key partners with the wider business community, working with local employers to design curricula, playing a strategic part in their LEPs, integrating work experience into courses and providing—I have seen some evidence of this—the sort of traineeships that the noble Lord, Lord Layard, referred to. They also provide the educational framework and tuition for apprenticeships.
I think it is worth saying that, although the focus in our debate is on young people, FE colleges train a high proportion of adults, giving vital opportunities for reskilling. While essential in its own right, the presence of adults as role models adds value to the formation of young people. It raises the bar of maturity in colleges and helps to breed the personal and social capacities of confidence, self-motivation and respect that the world of work demands and responsible human living requires. FE colleges are multi-generational communities of learning at the heart of their local communities. Hubs of educational activity, they deserve to be acclaimed and supported as vital components in not only the growing of skills but also, in so doing, the development of confident human beings. The potential of FE colleges should be further exploited and the possibilities of relationships with other institutions developed.
My third observation follows closely and reinforces much of what has been said. Apprenticeships need greater support and much more systematic and strategic attention than they are being given even at the moment. As I observe, the larger companies—JLR has already been referred to—have impressive traineeships for young, unemployed people and apprenticeships at GCSE stage. However, I hear from local business leaders that they need more help to incentivise support and to reward them for taking on apprentices, particularly at times of instability in the economy and uncertainty in their own industries.
My fourth observation is simply to say that I have seen the way churches, other faith communities and charities can have a significant role, not least through mentoring young people. To give an example of interventional work, I was with the YMCA recently and a young woman told me that without the accommodation that the YMCA had provided for her she would not have been able to enter her training course with the sort of stability she needed.