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My Lords, I too wish to add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Monks for putting this debate on the agenda today. Yesterday, quite opportunely, a gas engineer came to my house bringing with him a young apprentice who I managed to quiz about his training experience. I asked him what role his school played in guiding him into his current position: it turned out to be zero. An annual visit from the careers service to address the school assembly seemed to be the sum total of it. He decided himself to apply for an apprenticeship with British Gas and registered on its website. His period of learning lasts for three years, with some time with a qualified engineer and with some college-based work; and then he is on his own, but with a buddy system in operation for help and guidance.
I have deduced three things from this. First, it demonstrates a yawning gap between the education service and the world of work. A lack of understanding, knowledge, interest, concern—call it what you will—there is far too much evidence that schools cannot and largely do not handle this work. Given this situation, which we have known about for some time, can the Minister explain why it was decided to devolve delivery of the careers service to individual schools and what plans the Government have to improve matters?
Secondly, I concluded that this was a good training model—partly on the job, partly college-based learning, and with access, as time went on, to the buddy system. Thirdly, and very importantly, I concluded that this young man had shown initiative. He wanted to be a gas engineer and had sought out the website to find out how to go about it and make himself available. Nothing comes for nothing in this life and putting one’s best foot forward is an essential ingredient of progress.
Earlier this year, a piece of work was done jointly by the Industry and Parliament Trust—I declare an interest as deputy chair of its trustee board—and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which identified many good examples of traineeships and apprenticeships that are equipping people to gain qualifications and experience in a variety of fields. We met the trainees from British Sugar, who are studying for a level 3 diploma in process engineering. We also met trainees working with Whitbread’s Premier Inns. Hospitality is, of course, a large and growing part of our economy and the company has pledged to provide 50% of its training opportunities to 16 to 24 year-old NEETs. We also met with the car builders Nissan, QinetiQ, the providers of high-tech services, Rolls-Royce, M&S, HSBC, Nestlé and others.
One theme which came through loud and clear was the shortage of school leavers who have studied the STEM subjects. Can the Minister advise the House of any actions taken—or intended to be taken—to address this issue, which, it has to be said, has been with us for a long time? In her reply, I hope that the Minister will also address the need to encourage more girls and young women to study the STEM subjects. I hope that she may be able to tell us that there is a plan in action to achieve this.
In his opening remarks, my noble friend Lord Monks mentioned the City & Guilds report Sense & Instability, in which it expressed regret at the constant churn and change, over a long period, of government policies, priorities and practices. It calls for better long-term planning for skills policy, which would be linked to long-term economic needs, greater coherence between central and local government, greater scrutiny and better checks and balances. Currently, skills and learning are divided between two government departments, making a difficult situation even more difficult. If we are to be fit and able to compete properly on the world stage then we need to up our game and ensure that every young person receives proper advice and guidance, enabling them to contribute in the most suitable way possible.
The industrialists of the 19th century, who made vast sums of money from the manufacture of textiles, armaments and shipbuilding, et cetera, did not encourage their sons to continue in trade—there were no daughters involved here, of course—but sent them off to the professions to be doctors and lawyers, and so on. That industrial snobbery remains with us today and it is up to us all to do what we can to chase it away. It is long past its sell-by date.