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Clause 2

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 5th February 2008.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 5:45 pm, 5th February 2008

I am grateful for the way in which the Minister addressed the Committee in conciliatory—I could go as far as to say collaborative—terms. However, three or four points stand proud from our short debate on such a vital subject. There is common ground, first, about the need to increase the number of apprenticeships—without that, the Bill cannot do its job—and, secondly, about the need to do that while retaining rigour. There would be a not inconsiderable risk that, in trying to achieve the first purpose, we might lose sight of the second, and that many young people might be encouraged into training that was less than rigorous. There is probably more common ground on the fact that the test of that rigour is enhanced employability; does the completion of an apprenticeship improve job prospects and performance? I would go even further and say that the Government have moved, hesitatingly and grudgingly, but moved none the less. We should always rejoice when a sinner comes to the Lord.

The Government have moved in our direction, and the statutory definition of apprenticeship is now part of the review for which I called, as the Minister generously acknowledged. That is critically important for employer engagement, mentoring and the degree to which the apprenticeship will include work-based training. There were doubts about programme-led apprenticeships and some level 2 apprenticeships in that regard, which were reflected in the adult learning inspectorate’s final report, which said that it was entirely possible to complete an apprenticeship without setting foot in a workplace. That is not right.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between us—and this is why I am inclined to press the amendment to a Division—and I am not sure that the Government have sped in our direction. They might not even be moving falteringly in that direction. Indeed, evidence from the review suggests that they are plodding in the opposite direction. The difference concerns the question of how apprenticeships are managed and funded. I am convinced that the central tenet of the Leitch analysis is that we must inject dynamism into the apprenticeship system to grow the numbers, with the caveat that we retain rigour, and that we must therefore make it more responsive to employer demands.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South is a heady optimist—an idealist—in such matters. I am a romantic idealist, too, but I cannot reconcile the  ambition to increase numbers in a robust way with a system that is still driven centrally by, and built around, the Learning and Skills Council. I am not saying that that is wrong. If we did not have that arrangement, we would have to have a method for funding such things, but I suspect that Lord Leitch hoped for—he certainly alluded to it in his report—a more radical overhaul of the management and funding structure. I am inclined to say that the growth that the Minister wants—and it is a desire that I share—will be inhibited by an over-bureaucratic way of funding and managing apprenticeships.