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Young People: Alternatives to University — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:23 pm on 23rd October 2014.

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Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills) 4:23 pm, 23rd October 2014

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Monks on what has been an absolutely fascinating debate. I do not envy the Minister’s having to try to sum up and respond to all the suggestions she has received.

I want to make a few points. If there is one thing that we all share—there are some common objectives—it is that we all want to enhance the quality of apprenticeships as well as increase their numbers. It is sometimes difficult to achieve the quality as well as the quantity. I acknowledge this Government’s commitment to apprenticeships but they are building on the achievements of the previous Labour Government, who, as my noble friend Lady Nye reminded us, rescued a dying apprenticeship scheme. There were just 65,000 apprenticeships, with a 27% completion rate; as my noble friend reminded us, when we left office there were nearly 280,000, with a 72% completion rate.

We did something else that tends to be forgotten: we said that careers advice in schools should span the whole range of careers and we built that into an education Act. As we constantly hear, that is honoured more in the breach than in the commission. We also raised the participation age—not the school leaving age, as people constantly say, but the participation age. We tried to ensure that every young person was either in work, education or training, and if they were in work, that they were receiving some training.

We did not get everything right. I do not go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who said that we should not have gone for the target of sending 50% of young people to university. We did not get it all right, but we did raise the aspirations of a lot of young people who would not even have thought about going to university. It worked for some and not for others, but it was not the wrong thing to do. I accept that it had the unintended consequence that my noble friend Lady Morris identified. Towards the end we started to rescue the situation when we recognised the importance of apprenticeship and commissioned the Leitch report on skills. This is not an easy thing to get right.

I thank my noble friend Lord Monks for his history lesson on qualifications. It is absolutely baffling and we need to try to rationalise it. My noble friend Lord Macdonald and I are the only ex-apprentices in the Chamber at the moment. There may be others but they have not revealed it. It gives you an advantage in that we went through the scheme and it provided us with great careers in the end.

There is one thing that I criticise the Government for in relation to apprenticeships and that is that they made a fetish of the numbers when, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, we ought to have a narrower focus. I would not be quite so narrow as to say focus on 16 to 18 year-olds, although I regard those as vital. Even if we go as far as 24, if we look at the increase in 25-plus since 2009-10, for under-19s we have seen a minus 4% change in apprenticeships, while for 25-plus we have seen a 352% increase in apprenticeships. It does not matter what figures you look at—I am looking at figures provided by government sources. If you look at the number of starts in apprenticeships in the 2013 academic year, there were 117,800 at under-19, 156,900 in the 19 to 24 age range and 157,000 by those aged 25 and over. Of course, there is a role for reskilling, but whether these should be badged apprenticeships is a question that the Richard review commented on. When we get these huge figures reported by the Government it is, unfortunately, misleading.

The other problem that the Government had to resolve was the emergence of the six-month apprenticeship. The Government have come some way, not enough, in saying that for an apprenticeship to be an apprenticeship, it has to be at least a year. We do not think that that is enough; we think that it should be two years. Worse still, we had employers who were not even paying the minimum wage: that is another problem. If we are talking about enhancing the status of apprenticeships we have got to make sure that we are serious about that so that boys and girls, and their parents, can feel confident about the quality of the career they are going to embark on.

As part of the House of Lords outreach programme I was at a secondary school near me and at the end of the question and answer session I asked how many of them were going to university. All the hands shot up. This is a very diverse but not particularly affluent area. I said that I was glad to see they were not deterred by fees, and then I asked about the alternatives. After about a minute or so, one young girl mentioned apprenticeships, although she did not really know much about them. I said that it was a bit unfortunate that the school was not giving those young people the full range of career options. We know that some of them will regret that university choice, because it will not be for them, and it will cost them a significant amount of money. So if we are talking about getting the status of apprenticeships enhanced, we have to do something about this conflict of interests that seems to infect most schools in the country. They are rewarded if they keep pupils on in the sixth form, and that seems to be their goal. Therefore, advice about alternative career options is just not good enough.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, paid tribute to the late Lord Dearing as regards establishing university technical colleges, which do their bit to enhance vocational qualifications. That is still going to be a challenge for us. So many people have given us such interesting information as we have gone through this debate. My noble friend Lord Bhattacharyya has shown what can be done. But if we are serious about ensuring that there is a viable alternative, we should not pose this as an either/or choice for young people, because it is not a matter of either taking up a vocational choice or going to university. As we know, one can lead to the other, so we should not present it in that way. We want young people to realise that they are both valid and important career choices, and we want to get them both having the same amount of esteem, if they go down that route.

I could not help smiling when my noble friend Lady Nye talked about telling young women that there are alternatives to hair and beauty. I agree, but as a man you have to be careful how you say that. I do not want to demean hair and beauty—and there is an apprenticeship scheme for that choice. There is a danger of an apprenticeship snobbery developing, whereby people think that it is only a real apprenticeship if it is in engineering. There is a whole range of good-quality apprenticeships. That is what we have to ensure.

If we gain power after the next election, we have said that we want to safeguard the trusted and historic apprenticeship brand, which we think has become a bit tarnished under this Government. We have announced that under Labour we would ensure that all apprenticeships are quality apprenticeships, are at level 3 and last a minimum of two years.

I end with a question for the Minister. Why do this Government continue to resist the point that significant public sector procurement contracts should carry with them the requirement of training and apprenticeships? We did it in the Olympics and it was successful, and we did it with Crossrail; something approaching 400 apprenticeships were achieved from that—and not only that, but practically everyone in the supply chain awarded apprenticeships. I am absolutely puzzled about this matter. If the Government have a serious commitment to enhancing the number of apprenticeships, they should ensure that procurement contracts require that guarantee.