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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for initiating this debate and doing it so comprehensively. I agree with most of the points made so far and agree with all the speakers that this is a very important debate, because it is really about social mobility.
Apprenticeships should not be seen just as filling skills shortages and meeting employer needs; they should also be about training and giving young people skills that will help plug the gaps currently within the system, and equipping individuals to reskill and retrain in a fast-changing economy and labour market. As I said, the issue is social mobility but, as we have already heard, social mobility has become almost stagnant.
The Government’s commitment to 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 is admirable. But if placements do not fulfil business needs, if quantity is preferred over quality, if standards vary and the placements are not achieving their objectives, then we must ask whether apprenticeships are working effectively. Are they are fit for purpose to meet changing needs?
The current levy system is undermining the purpose of the entire strategy. Some up-skilling, particularly at lower skill levels, is less expensive to run through the system and may be more attractive in terms of volume. Evidence shows that two-thirds of apprenticeships are estimated to be merely “converting” existing employees and certifying existing skills. If these apprenticeships are not delivering the skills required, the levy is not doing its job either for business or for young people; neither are being best served.
There is also great difficulty for employers in using the system, especially if staff do not fit the compulsory apprentice profile. The system is overly complex, and staff such as agency or temporary workers who do not fit the apprentice template are unable to avail themselves of apprenticeship opportunities. Often, agency workers are filling a gap in the workforce and are unlikely to be in a position long enough to undertake training alongside the job itself. Reports have shown that there is underclaiming among employers who pay into the fund, with only 9% having claimed in the year 2017-18. Perhaps this mismatch between employers who pay in and the lack of staff who fit the profile are part of the reason; it would be helpful to know.
Standards were brought in by the coalition Government in 2013, but as of 2018 only 360 of a potential 600 have been approved. This leaves a marked lack of variation in apprenticeships. If we are to improve this aspect of apprenticeships, we need to know what is going on with the approval system and when approvals are likely to be completed.
Then there is the question of low take-up by minorities, which is around 10%. We need to know why the numbers are so low and what can be done about it.
Access to good-quality, appropriate apprenticeships should be a priority. But too many are failing to provide sufficient training or access to skilled work to enable progression; the focus is on numbers rather than hard, sustained work to improve quality. Numbers, targets and the apprenticeship levy have too often encouraged the creation of apprenticeships that are simply a rebadging of lower-level training, with companies accrediting the existing skills of their current staff. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to go to university and more likely to drop out. To increase their career opportunities, there is a real need for quality apprenticeships.
As well as a lack of quality, there is a lack of awareness. According to the Sutton Trust, two-thirds of young people say that they would be interested in doing an apprenticeship, yet 40% say they have never had a discussion about apprenticeships with a teacher. There is a need for better awareness and careers advice and to dispel the perception that apprenticeships are a less attractive alternative to university. The Sutton Trust recommends that the Institute for Apprenticeships and the levy should have a widening access function to ensure access to advanced and higher apprenticeships for those from less advantaged backgrounds, and that there should be adequate funding for apprenticeships in non-levy-paying employers. It also recommends a UCAS-style portal for admissions, which could be a step change for the further and higher education sector. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government will give positive consideration to these recommendations, which are about widening access?
Finally, apprenticeships should be seen not just as something designed for skills for work but as a new type of qualification training, as part of the broader education and training landscape, equipping individuals for the changing nature of work and increasing the capacity of employers to adapt and improve skills and productivity at the pace the country needs. The time has come not just to improve the operation of apprenticeships but to make them less complex and more accessible and to see them as part of a broader further and higher education landscape, taking into account the changing landscape of employment. While any review should rightly look at the detailed operation of apprenticeships, looking at the approach, and making them more agile and dynamic, will be very important to meet the new needs of the country.