My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, for securing this debate. Education is the engine behind social mobility. It provides opportunity and unlocks the potential that often resides unknown within people, particularly the young, across the country and can equip them with the tools to lift them out of poverty.
We are fortunate to live in a country that can boast some of the world’s largest pools of untapped raw potential and underutilised talent. Unfortunately, we have for too long not recognised how we can best draw out the full potential of our young people. I fear that we have moved to a one-size-fits-all approach, channelling generations of schoolchildren through the machinery of our university system, saddling them with debt and often failing to meet the needs that their talents genuinely deserve. I have no desire to disparage our university system, a system that is the envy of much of the world, but I want to illuminate the truth that it is not the best way to meet the needs of many of our young people. I have long advocated an alternative that can run parallel to the university system, offering opportunities to people whose skills and interests are not necessarily suited to university. It is a fact that people learn through different methods, and it is only sensible to reflect this in our education system.
The apprenticeship model is a genuine alternative to the university system, often proving far more suitable to the needs of both young people and business. That is why I welcomed the 2015 announcement by the then Prime Minister David Cameron that the Government would support 3 million new apprentice starts by 2020. This system offers the chance to many young people to learn practical skills and unlock their full potential, giving them the tools they need to improve their lives and the lives of their families. We must show young people that apprenticeships are an equally worthwhile option that will lead to long-term employment. That said, I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Young, that we need to ensure the quality of the brand.
Businesses have also benefited from the apprenticeship programme. The challenges facing many companies in the UK are complex, but lack of productivity and the skills gap of people leaving university are among them. They have recognised that education and recruitment need modernising to meet those challenges. For those reasons, many companies have embraced the apprenticeship programme. They have found that it has improved the diversity of talent and widened the pool of applicants. This is having a significant impact on both career and social mobility within companies.
Companies have also found that people who would otherwise not have applied for opportunities in their business are using the apprenticeship programme. I am sure that noble Lords will have read the briefing that the insurance company AXA sent. The take-up of apprenticeships there has resulted in a more diverse and creative workforce, which has positively impacted the productivity of its employees.
As a country, we need more highly skilled people. Given the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead after our vote to leave the EU, we need to ensure that young people, who will be the drivers of our economy, are given the best opportunity to succeed in the workplace. Simply put, their success is our country’s success.
I recognise that the Government’s apprenticeship programme is not perfect; relatively few policies translate in practice as the finished article. However, I hope noble Lords will agree—I believe I sense this mood in the Chamber today—that the aim behind the scheme is laudable and deserves to continue. That is why I am glad that steps have been taken to improve the system, with more money invested in the programme in 2017 through the apprenticeship levy. Nevertheless, I would like to see more emphasis on how this programme can be promoted as a real alternative to university and on its potential as a mechanism for social mobility.
Noble Lords may recall that last week I asked a Question to my noble friend the Minister about how we can improve and widen careers advice in schools. The noble Lord, Lord Young, followed up with a question sharing concerns and has touched on that again today, as have other noble Lords. We are not reaching all schools in talking about apprenticeships as a real possibility to be considered by our young people. We hear that employers still complain about some schools denying access to pupils to talk about apprenticeships and other career opportunities. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said last week and again today, that is despite the Baker amendment and previous legislation. We must ensure that all schools meet their obligations to provide full career path options to their pupils. I have said in this Chamber before that if we want to create a ladder of opportunity, rather than a missed opportunity, we need to provide better career advice in schools on apprenticeships.
It is for these reasons that I welcome today’s debate and hope that both this House and the other place will continue to strive to improve this vital gateway for social mobility and for our young people to reach their full potential.