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Clause 1

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:00 pm on 31st January 2008.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 1:00 pm, 31st January 2008

If we want to have a philosophical debate, for wider reading purposes, the case has been well made by Burke, Disraeli, Oakeshott and more recently Scruton. For the sake of the Committee, the practical arguments are paramount. We could reject the Bill or amend it wholesale purely because of the doubts of the hon. Member for Yeovil, which I have already described as reasonable, laudable and undoubtedly perfectly sincere. I admire the clarity of his position. We can also have doubts about the Bill purely on the pragmatic grounds that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire suggests, and those, in the end, may be more significant.

In public policy terms, I suspect that it is whether something works that makes the difference between a bad and a good law. Is the measure necessary, does it work and can it be done? I am not sure that any of that can convincingly be argued about the clause, which is why we have tabled the amendment.

There are fundamental weaknesses in the training system. We would be creating extra demand on an unreformed system. I have no doubt that the Minister  will rise to his feet with the alacrity for which he is renowned and say, “This is not being introduced immediately. We have time to make the necessary changes. We will indeed reform the system in a way that can absorb and cope with the extra demand.” If the Minister were to do that, I would respond by saying, “You have had 10 years to do it, and you have not made much progress so far.”

There are real weaknesses in the way we deal with vocational education and training in this country. In truth, the Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, who is a great expert on such matters, and others sometimes explicitly acknowledge that, and they may acknowledge it implicitly more frequently.

We know, for example, that the apprenticeship system, which the Government have reported on very recently in a new review, has real flaws and problems. The picture of an apprenticeship that you have colourfully painted in your own mind, Mr. Bayley, is of an eager young apprentice learning a vital competence by the side of an experienced craftsman in a workplace. That is how most people regard an apprenticeship. However, many apprenticeships do not meet that ideal. Many do: if one gets on to an apprenticeship course at Rolls-Royce, Honda, British Telecom, or a host of other large organisations and many small and medium-sized companies, that is precisely what happens, particularly in areas such as the construction and engineering industries.

The growth of level 2 apprenticeships has, to some extent, extinguished some level 3 qualifications. If we look at the graph, it is clear that level 3 qualifications have declined steadily since 1999 and level 2 have increased. The growth in the apprenticeship programme has meant that, as Alison Wolf, Hilary Steadman, Alison Fuller and other academics have argued—they did so again in the evidence sessions—some apprenticeships are disconnected from the world of work. Some schemes are not mentored, many do not have sufficient workplace element, and some have no employer engagement at all. They are virtual apprenticeships. That does not do any favours to learners or employers.

The Government, with an implicit acceptance of the problems, are now reviewing the system yet again, after at least three previous significant reviews, many of the recommendations of which have not been acted upon. Nevertheless, we give this latest review a fair wind because we want the apprenticeship system to work. It has some strength, but it does not deal with the central problem, which is that the Government have a centrally driven, target-based, controlling ideology when it comes to organising training. A system that was devolved, responsive and employer-led would be more appropriate because it would be more sensitive to genuine workplace need and the skills necessary to fill that need.