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Clause 2

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 5th February 2008.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 5:15 pm, 5th February 2008

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in clause 2, page 2, line 8, at end add—

‘( ) This section may not come into force before the Secretary of State has certified that in his opinion there are sufficient contracts of apprenticeship available to meet in full the level of demand for such contracts by persons to whom this Part applies.’.

The amendment brings us to the point where we can consider once again—some might say yet again, but I know that you, Mr. Bayley, would not—the quality of what is on offer to young people as a part of the argument for the Bill. It is an argument that the Minister has made exhaustively. He has said that the range of options available to young people will be so inspiring—so alluring—that he believes that they will consider lightly the loss of their liberty. To that end, the amendment suggests that until the Secretary of State can make real the claims that have been made by the Minister in the Committee and elsewhere, it would not be reasonable—even if we accept the argument of compulsion—to go ahead with the Bill’s provisions.

How would it be if we said to young people, “You must stay in training but there is no appropriate training for you.”? The Minister would not want that circumstance any more than I would. Therefore, the amendment might be regarded as a way of strengthening the provisions. It would certainly be an improvement and is not a wrecking amendment in any way, shape or form. It  would simply oblige the Government to guarantee that what they are offering to young people is right and proper, given that young people will have to accept what they are offered.

According to the explanatory notes, clause 2 creates the central duty—in other words, the duty to participate in education or training. We have heard a lot about that. The clause details the ways in which young people might fulfil that duty, and I spoke about that this morning and listed those ways. One of them, which is why I tabled the amendment, is by

“participating in training in accordance with a contract of apprenticeship”.

However, the Committee, including the Minister and his noble Friend the Under-Secretary—I do not mean “noble”; that may have been a Freudian slip in anticipation of some future event—know that there is a shortage of apprenticeship places owing to a lack of employer engagement. As a result, the Government have consistently missed their target for the number of apprenticeships. In 2003, the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that apprenticeship numbers would rise to 320,000 by 2006. In fact, as we know, there were only 239,000 apprenticeships in training in 2006-07, and numbers are falling, as was confirmed by the figures that were published just before Christmas. Alarmingly, the numbers were falling not only at level 3—they have been falling steadily since 1999—but now at level 2. I should be more than happy to make graphic evidence of that available to the Committee should any hon. Members wish to see it.

We could debate the reason for that decline at length, but it is not appropriate here to do so, as I am not sure whether it would be in order. However, the Government must go a long way if they are to create enough apprenticeship places to make the duties implicit in the Bill a reality. If they do not provide additional apprenticeship places, how could they possibly oblige young people to sign up to them? That is the simple thrust of the argument behind the amendment.

Once, all apprenticeships were a level 3 qualification. Eager young learners acquired alongside experienced craftsmen vital practical skill that gave them a sense of accomplishment and worth, and well deserved too, and that fulfilled an economic need. Although statistics show an increased level of participation in the apprenticeship system since 1997—the Under-Secretary made that point a number of times—the inclusion of lower qualifications labelled “apprenticeships” has disguised the fact that fewer people are training at level 3. In addition, work-based training has been in decline for about 20 years; in fact, it is about half of what it was 20 years ago. There is a pattern of decline of people training at higher level, a decline in work-based training, and a willingness to include under the badge of apprenticeship qualifications at level 2 that are not always fit for purpose, because they are not well based, not mentored and, sometimes, not employer-engaged at all.

To that end, a fairly unattractive picture emerges. It is a similar picture to the one painted by the hon. Member for Yeovil, who spoke of the possibility of people signing up to NVQs that might not enhance their employment prospects. Some academic evidence  suggests that some NVQ courses—clearly, I do not mean all such courses—may not bring the return of greater employability. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee can agree on this: it is important that we establish that the critical test—the key way in which to judge vocational education and training of any kind—is whether it adds to the individual’s employability. That is the nature of vocational training: it should lead to a vocation, and that vocation should be about the acquisition of a real competence that has economic value.

We are training fewer people at level 3, which is why there are doubts in our mind about whether the Bill can be implemented. I have said a number of times that my principal reservation is that I simply do not think that it will do the job for which it is intended. There has been broad agreement about ambitions. Our ambition is for more young people to stay on in education or training after the age of 16, but I am not sure that the Bill in those terms is fit for purpose. One of the critical weaknesses relates to whether enough meaningful training places—apprenticeships are, or at least should be, about meaningful training—can be put in place in time for the statutory duty to have the impact that hon. Members want, which is one of greater participation, particularly among young people who currently do not make it in terms of their educational progress and level of skills.

It would be remiss of me, in proposing the amendment, not to say something about the apprenticeship review published at the beginning of last week. That review is important in these terms because it is clear that the Government know that what I have said about increasing the number of apprenticeships is of real significance. Both Ministers on the Committee have made that point themselves. In fact, they know that, in a sense, my amendment, whether it is accepted or not, is critical to the Bill: if the number of apprenticeship places does not grow, the Government will not meet their own targets and fulfil their own ambitions. However, the apprenticeship review, in my judgment, will in the end be unhelpful, because it sails in the opposite direction to the recommendations made by Lord Leitch, who examined these matters closely for the Government.

Lord Leitch’s key recommendation was that the Government should move from supply-side planning to demand-led skills training. He concluded that

“history tells us supply-side planning of this sort cannot effectively meet the needs of employers, individuals and the economy. The Review recommends a fully demand-led approach, with an end to this supply-side planning of provision.”

He stated that, as a consequence, planning bodies such as the Learning and Skills Council will

“require a further significant streamlining.”

However, the apprenticeship review reinforces supply-side planning by establishing a national apprenticeship service. That service is part of the LSC. The bureaucracy that at the moment is unhelpful to the provision of apprenticeships will be reinforced by the new service.

Mr. Marsden rose—