Vocational Qualifications Day — [Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 9th June 2015.

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Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud 2:30 pm, 9th June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered annual Vocational Qualifications Day.

It is a great pleasure to serve under—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. It says here that I have to say something. The Question is that this House has considered annual Vocational Qualifications Day.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

We are operating a new system, so there is some confusion, not just on my part but obviously elsewhere.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

It is great to have such a free and frank Chairman for this occasion. Thank you, Sir Roger. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

Vocational Qualifications Day is critical, because it celebrates the success of young people. However, we need to do that not just annually but throughout the year, because it is that success that young people, our society and our economy need. It is worth emphasising that vocational qualifications are something that we should celebrate for everyone, at every level. That is one essential underpinning of the speech that I shall make and, I hope, the debate that we will have.

The second point, of course, is that we want to see equal value between vocational qualifications and academic qualifications. That is an essential part of the whole debate about our education system and the way in which our young people and everyone else, including those who go into new careers at the tail end of their working lives, want to experience it. This is the eighth year for Vocational Qualifications Day. That demonstrates continuity and success, and underlines our very strong feeling about the subject.

We have to promote several key messages. First, we need to raise the status of technical, practical and vocational learning. We have to ensure that people see that as a direction of travel for their careers, aspirations and hopes. Secondly, we need to demonstrate and celebrate the fact that everyone, of all ages, both genders and wherever they come from, can be part of the vocational qualifications world. Of course, we also want to ensure that there is a sense of parity between vocational studies and academic studies. Parity is important because that leads to esteem that is equal and benefits everyone.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that parity is of the essence, but is not there a dark cloud over all of us in the vocational qualifications sphere, because there is no red line around further education spending? As well as the ambition and the high priority, we need the resources to invest in further education.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course we need resources, but a good FE college is adaptable enough—flexible enough—to find those resources where appropriate. I shall go on to describe the experiences of my local college, Stroud College, which has now merged with Filton College to create an exciting range of opportunities for young people. That has lifted the reputation of FE in my community and provided fabulous opportunities for young people. The issue is not just ring-fencing, but freeing up colleges to benefit from the opportunities that they can find.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am sorry that I cannot stay for the whole debate, but I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue for discussion this afternoon. He is right to say that colleges, such as the excellent Trafford College in my constituency, can do imaginative things to draw in new resources and form new partnerships, but does not he agree that we should take this opportunity to press the Minister on the impact of the 24% funding cut suffered by further education?

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. My hon. Friend the Minister will have heard it—indeed, he is writing a note about it. Obviously, all areas of education have an interest in fair funding and more funding, but there is a cake and we have to slice it up in a sensible way. We will be having that debate throughout this Parliament.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this very important debate, but let me press him further on funding. Although further education colleges are in the vanguard of providing vocational qualifications, they have had to suffer, in addition to the cut in February that my hon. Friend Kate Green mentioned, an in-year cut of £450 million in post-16 funding and another £450 million cut in FE and higher education funding—in-year and retrospective—for which they have not planned, so however brilliant they are, these are challenging times for vocational education.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for appreciating my success in securing the debate. The key point is really the one that I made to Mr Sheerman. There are opportunities for FE colleges, working with business and working in their communities, to develop novel and interesting ideas about getting funding from sources other than the ones that hon. Members are talking about. That is what we should be thinking about, and I will articulate more thoughts about it as I progress through my speech.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I join in the expressions of support for the debate that my hon. Friend has secured. I hear what other hon. Members are saying with regard to funding in further education, but does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s commitment in this area is clear in the funding that has been put in for apprenticeships, and the success that the Government have had in increasing the numbers of people securing apprenticeships in our communities?

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. She makes a very good point. We have already created 2.2 million apprenticeships in the last five years and we plan to create a further 3 million in the next five years, so that is 5.2 million. That is a fabulous contribution to the success of our economy, but above all are the achievements of the people who have those apprenticeships. That is absolutely right.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Before the hon. Gentleman moves off apprenticeships, may I make this point? I will not intervene again, but it would be wrong if I did not say this. He and I and the rest of the usual suspects in this excellent debate all know one another and know the background, but may I just say this? Will the hon. Gentleman not let himself be sucked into what was the coalition Government’s mantra? It was a fig leaf: “Look at what we’re doing with apprenticeships.” A lot of those apprenticeships were short term—for one year or less—and did not lead to a qualification. In contrast, FE delivers real skills and costs more money, but that is the real choice.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am a firm proponent and supporter of the FE sector. I have been a governor of two or three colleges and have worked hard for the success of them all, so hon. Members can be sure that for anything that happens about the FE sector, I will be there, fighting its corner.

In short, what we are hoping to do and should be doing is celebrate achievement and promote aspiration through vocational qualifications. That is a good strapline for this debate. Our purpose is essentially to enable people to fulfil their lives. That is a very important thing in the structure of my political beliefs. I want people from all walks of life and all places to be able to fulfil their lives, and they will do that through satisfying and rewarding work, which in many ways comes from good vocational training and qualifications.

Our purpose is also to ensure that we can create an economy that is full of opportunity, responsive and modern, and I think that that is completely in line with vocational qualifications and the whole framework around them.

Thirdly, we must ensure that our economy has the skills that it needs—the appropriate pools of skills in all the big sectors. For instance, in engineering, we will still need 83,000 new engineers each year to keep the show on the road, and many of them will be individuals with vocational qualifications. However, this is not just about engineering; the world of construction is just as thirsty for these kinds of qualification. That is an essential part of this debate.

We need an education system that is adaptive, responsive and aware of the changing framework in the world of work and in society. Our working patterns have changed, our aspirations are greater and our attitude to work is different, because we expect to find more opportunities, to advance in our careers and to change careers from time to time. That difference is reflected in our society as well, because we want our families to be able to develop their careers.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that careers advice is crucial, and that it is unfortunate that even today, 63% of young people, when asked, can name A-levels but cannot name any vocational qualifications? That shows the distance that we need to travel to achieve the parity of esteem that we need if vocational qualifications are to deliver in the way in which he indicates, quite rightly, that we need them to.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I will go on to address that issue, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has touched on it. As I will say in a few moments, we need to make it clear that it is not just A-levels that people need for future employment; there are a whole range of other possibilities.

We need to reinvigorate practical learning. We all know that that happened in the past and still happens now, but it must happen more. We need more specialist schools in the 14 to 18 sector to address the skills shortages—I have already alluded to some—that various sectors have identified. University technical colleges are part of that, but there are other ways of providing such schools, which have a relationship with the business world and the community, and which can run appropriate activities. We should be encouraging that.

I support a baccalaureate to recognise young people’s achievements up to the age of 18. That is in line with what Nic Dakin has said. A baccalaureate is the right way to demonstrate that huge achievement has been notched up through vocational qualifications, and I want to put that firmly on the agenda.

We have to work hard at bringing together the world of education and the world of business, the professions and employment in general. That is important not only for education, but for employers and organisations that might extend some form of training. Unless the interface between those sectors and organisations is improved, opportunities will constantly be missed because schools produce one kind of output and businesses require another.

I have come across that problem in my constituency, and I tackled it by setting up the Festival of Manufacturing and Engineering. One in every four jobs in my constituency is connected to manufacturing and engineering, but when I first went around the schools, I did not get the sense that they understood that at all. I felt that they were quite unaware of the appetite for skills in electronics, in certain aspects of the automotive sector and in aviation, so I got schools and businesses to work together and we came up with the Festival of Manufacturing and Engineering. It is held every year, and it really brings young people into the world of work. It ensures that schools understand what kind of job opportunities are coming along, and it underlines the need for vocational qualifications. We should recognise the importance of bringing those sectors together.

We have talked a bit about further education, and I want to underline its importance. Right now, 3 million students are being equipped with valuable employment skills. That is a huge chunk of our young people, and it demonstrates the large footprint that the further education sector has in the matter. We need to recognise that the FE sector has a role to play. In my patch, as I have mentioned, a really good college has seen the strategic advantage of merging with another, and it is now able to produce a whole range of useful courses and training opportunities for young people and for adults who seek to change their direction of travel.

In fact, the arrangement is now so successful that we are going to have a new training centre at a disused—but properly maintained—nuclear power station. It will be known as Berkeley Green, and it will provide training opportunities for people who are interested in renewable energy, nuclear energy, manufacturing and other activities. That huge investment has been made because the college understands that there is a huge requirement for such skills in my constituency. That has led to another investment in a university technical college to ensure that advanced manufacturing opportunities are being offered and places are being filled by people who are properly trained, as we would expect them to be, at a UTC.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

Gloucestershire. [Interruption.]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. I know that Mr Sheerman is a new Member, but he really ought to be aware of the procedure by now, if only for the benefit of the Hansard writer.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

The hon. Gentleman has made a lot of interventions, so I recognise—

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I think I will go on with my speech. The point that I am advancing is that we can really make sure that the FE sector plays its part. If it has strong leadership, which I hope is the case in all areas, that is exactly what will happen. We need to seek more of that.

One of the Government’s key themes is increasing productivity, and we need to do so in this country because the productivity gap is too large. For example, the OECD suggests that the gap between us and Germany is 29%. That is huge, and we need to address it. There are two good reasons for doing so. First, it will alter the terms of trade and export. Secondly, it will enable our young people to get jobs that lead to higher salaries and more opportunity. That is the antidote to any cost of living crises that we might be concerned about. It seems to me fairly obvious that vocational qualifications can play a part in improving productivity, which is one reason why we must make sure that the opportunities are laid before us.

One other aspect of the productivity question is the role of local enterprise partnerships. It will be increasingly important for LEPs to have a clear understanding of their local labour market, where skills are needed and how they will be provided. LEPs should have an interface with FE colleges and providers of vocational qualifications to ensure that there is a better fit between requirement and provision. That would be of great benefit.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned the difficulties caused by simply assuming that A-levels are the only things that matter, when there are lots of other options. I have already advanced the idea of a baccalaureate. Interestingly, nearly 46,000 students who have gone to universities in the past year have had a BTEC as part of their application. That further reinforces the point that vocational qualifications matter. Importantly, a large number of those students have managed to persuade employers to pay a large part, if not all, of their student fees, either because they are doing a course that includes vocational training or qualifications, or because they have already done a course that was underpinned by vocational qualifications. The value to that student and to the potential employer is, therefore, all the greater. That underlines the importance of vocational qualifications.

Another organisation that wrote to me after I secured this debate was Sports Leaders UK, which highlighted the value of soft skills, especially in developing leadership capacity. In our modern economy, which is developing very nicely, leadership will be paramount for entrepreneurial activities and large numbers of growing small and medium-sized businesses. Leaders are needed within structures and organisations to implement changes or direct new operations. Such a vocational qualification route, supported by the sorts of soft skills that develop leadership capacity and other useful characteristics, adds to the value of the individual and their appreciation of the opportunities ahead and to that of the economy as a whole. That is yet another reason for celebrating vocational qualifications.

Vocational Qualifications Day is a good thing to celebrate. It is about empowering people to do the things that they want to do and making sure that they have aspirations that they can achieve. It is about ensuring that we have a mix across the spectrum of education and training that meets everyone’s needs and all the opportunities that are available, and that reinforces the direction of travel, which must surely be towards the creation of a real economy that is modern, vibrant and able to support families, young people and older people who, ultimately, want work that is rewarding, satisfying and capable of giving them the capacity to fulfil their lives. Vocational study, training and qualifications can play a paramount role in delivering such an economy and society.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:52 pm, 9th June 2015

It is a pleasure to speak briefly in support of this debate. We should all seize the opportunity to celebrate vocational qualifications, and it is good that we are doing so today. Vocational qualifications play a huge part in the mix of qualifications that young people and older people gain throughout their lifelong learning and development. I was a co-ordinator for the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative back in the 1980s, and I know well that vocational education is a holy grail that politicians, academics, practitioners, the general public, parents, businesses and industry have been working towards for many years.

This is not a quick fix, but we must ensure that we take full advantage of this day that celebrates vocational qualifications. Further education colleges, along with other institutions, are the fulcrum of ensuring that things happen in that space. My local FE college, North Lindsey college, does an excellent job of bringing together the worlds of work and study, because it has a pivotal role in the local community. The college has lots of links with local companies and businesses, and students of all ages come to work and study at its various premises. Further education is a key partner, and it needs to be backed and supported. I illustrate that with a local example: the work that North Lindsey college is doing with Bradbury Security on Youth Engineering

Scunthorpe, a scheme that gives people who have been out of work for some time an opportunity to come back into it, doing work that would otherwise not exist. That work is not displacing jobs that would otherwise be taken by other people; these are new jobs. The scheme is onshoring jobs that Bradbury Security previously delivered from China. We need such work in order to reskill, develop capacity and secure and grow new business.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

My hon. Friend knows more about this sector than almost anyone else in the House of Commons, and I defer to his great knowledge and professional experience. This is not party political, but does he agree that, across successive Governments, further education has been the neglected area of UK education? Does he agree that FE has been neglected in terms of budget, focus and interest for many years?

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is right that further education has been a Cinderella area of education and training. One reason why I applaud vocational qualifications day is that it represents a real effort to rebalance what we are saying out there, and what is being said back to us. It is important that we seize that with both hands.

Careers advice is an area in which the Government need to up their game. We have a new careers and enterprise company in place, but it is not clear—the Minister might tell us that it is crystal clear—exactly what that company is doing, or how it will address the current deficit that means that whereas 63% of young people can name A-levels as a post-GCSE qualification, only 7% can name apprenticeships and only 26% are able to name national vocational qualifications as post-GCSE qualifications. Despite the plug that Neil Carmichael gave for BTECs, only 19% of pupils were able to name them. When I was a college principal, I expanded the BTEC curriculum within my college because it acts as a very good bridge between the academic and the vocational. That applied learning is the sort of bridge we need in order for people to develop and move on to both vocational and academic pathways, as he described.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of careers advice in raising young people’s awareness of alternative education and qualification routes, but will he say something about what can be done better to inform parents? Parents influence their children’s choices, and many parents assume that a university education is the best and only suitable option for their children.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Opposition Whip (Commons)

Absolutely. That is where there is a real danger in the fragmentation of schools, academies, UTCs and other provision. Sadly, the evidence is that in schools with their own sixth form, the quality of careers education, as regards raising awareness of the various pathways available, is lower than in schools that do not have their own sixth form. We must ensure that impartial advice is available to all young people, wherever they undertake their secondary education. That includes connecting better with parents and ensuring that they get information about the range of available pathways from the secondary school, which is the main vehicle through which they receive such information. Research commissioned by the Association of Colleges shows that only 14% of 11 to 16-year-olds have heard of apprenticeships, which is just not good enough. That is evidence that, collectively, we all need to up our game.

The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned LEPs, which are well placed to maximise the value of careers education locally. They seem to be the other player in the mix, with a good connection with the worlds of work and education. LEPs are in an opportune place to bring those things together. Given that LEPs are becoming more mature as organisations, any opportunity to allow them to show more leadership with regards to careers information, advice and guidance would probably benefit young people in their area. I commend Humber local enterprise partnership for its work in promoting gold standard awards for quality in careers information, advice and guidance in the Humber area. It is an example of good practice.

The adult skills budget is disappointing. Vocational qualifications are not just for younger people; they are for older people, particularly because many people will lose one job and have to retrain for another. Given that people are living longer, that is likely to be a challenge for older as well as younger people. It is disappointing that the adult skills budget was cut by 24% in February 2015, as my hon. Friend Kate Green said earlier. It is equally disappointing that just last week, further cuts were announced of £450 million to the non-schools budget and £450 million to the further and higher education part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget.

Those cuts will cause challenges and pressures, particularly if there are retrospective funding cuts. As a former principal of a college, I know what it is like to set out my stall and put my plans in place. If schools are told halfway through the year that they need to save more money, it is difficult to do so, even for the best-run organisations. I have concerns about the impact on providing the better vocational education and better pathways that we all want for young people, as well as better understanding and support for older people retraining. We might accidentally achieve the opposite. I know that the Minister is passionately committed to ensuring that this works, and I am sure that he did not decide to decrease funding in certain areas to benefit the bit of the world that he champions. I am sure that he will take away from this debate the desire to bat even harder in private for the people whom we want to deliver well for us in public: that is, young people coming into the workplace, as well as older people needing retraining. For both those groups, vocational qualifications are a key underpinning of bridges and platforms into the future.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 3:02 pm, 9th June 2015

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, in this interesting debate. It is also a great pleasure to follow Nic Dakin. He is absolutely right that awareness of further education qualifications is one of our key challenges, and I will discuss that in my contribution. However, the issue is not just about awareness; it is also about attitudes. They are part of the key to finding the solution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael on securing this debate and for giving us all the opportunity to recognise the eighth annual national vocational qualification day, as well as the organisers of the day; it always takes a great deal of organisation to ensure that such days have longevity. My hon. Friend put his finger on it when he spoke about productivity. It is one of this Government’s greatest challenges to ensure that Britain is fighting fit for an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Today, in the main Chamber, right hon. and hon. Members might be discussing the future of the EU, but I am sure that many Members would agree with me that we should be looking beyond the EU to consider what trade deals we can do with other countries to secure the future of the United Kingdom. Productivity—ensuring that we are as competitive as any other country in the world—will certainly be one of our biggest challenges. Although the Government’s investment in infrastructure such as high-street broadband, railways and roads are all important, the key to productivity is skills: ensuring that our workforce is as skilled as it can be and that every single citizen can contribute to the best of their ability, making us a successful nation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I look forward to hearing other Members’ contributions.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

The right hon. Lady is making a brilliant speech, but does she accept that this conundrum of the lack of productivity in our country, which we face across parties, is often related to management—a skill that we do not talk about enough? A recent report shows that there are a lot of highly skilled people in our nation, but they are poorly managed. Does she agree?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

The hon. Gentleman makes his own point. I am not sure. If we look at the analysis of productivity, we see that among the most important factors are transport systems. As a result of woeful investment in recent decades, this Government are running to catch up with some of the problems that we have inherited. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but we should not forget that productivity is not just about skills; it is about the ability to export and to move goods around a country. I congratulate the Government on how much support they are giving transport systems, some of which are woefully unable to relieve congestion. We should not forget that productivity is not simply a UK problem but a problem of all mature markets, so we should not beat ourselves up too much.

Before moving to my own comments, I want to respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said about the festival of manufacturing and engineering in his constituency—an idea that I think all of us will want to emulate. What a great way to highlight to young people the job opportunities available in their community and the importance of vocational qualifications to securing such jobs! It is a fascinating idea that I am sure we will all want to consider in more detail.

My constituency understands further education, primarily as a result of incredibly strong leadership in FE at Basingstoke College of Technology. I have had the privilege of introducing Anthony Bravo, the principal of that college, to my hon. Friend the Minister, who was extremely generous with his time, in order to discuss some of our ideas for FE, particularly apprenticeships in Basingstoke. Business responds well to such strong leadership. We have engaged businesses in Basingstoke in further education and in valuing its role, particularly apprenticeships, in a way that has impressed me. I also echo the point about the role of local enterprise partnerships in providing such leadership. We in my constituency are fortunate to have one of the best LEPs in the country: the M3 LEP, which has implemented a special management position to consider apprenticeships and how we can maximise them in our area, as they are critical to business growth.

I will make three short observations on the future of vocational education and how we can make it even more vibrant, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. The first was mentioned by Kate Green in her intervention earlier. It is important to support a positive attitude to vocational qualifications and ensure that schools and parents, as has been mentioned, understand what role such qualifications can play in their children’s educational careers.

Both my grandfathers were tool room workers. There was no way to work one’s way up the ladder 60 or 70 years ago without embracing the idea of apprenticeships. For my family, it was a huge way to move forward. We talk about social mobility; apprenticeships were critical to families such as mine in the black country all those years ago.

In the drive to increase university participation—I was incredibly fortunate to be part of it, as one of the first people in my family to go to university; the London School of Economics, a fabulous university, set me up for life—we have, in many ways, marginalised the further education that my grandfathers’ generation so valued. I urge the Minister to share with us, perhaps today, how he anticipates the Government working with not only schools, but parents, to encourage them to understand how vocational qualifications can fit their children with the right skills for life and help in retraining us all, as we work for much longer and have one, two or three different careers.

My second point relates to the importance of building business into a vocational educational approach. The reason why we in Basingstoke have been so successful in driving forward apprenticeships is our links with local businesses. My local college has taken that to such a degree that it is developing a work-based university centre to deliver degree-level apprenticeships in digital engineering and the construction industries. It has an employer advisory board, which includes the likes of Sony and the Atomic Weapons Establishment—I am fortunate to represent one of the top 10 centres for employment in the south-east, and many such household names are local employers. I applaud the work that Anthony Bravo is doing on the degree-level apprenticeship, because such developments can help to build further education’s credentials.

My third point picks up on some of the funding concerns that other Members have raised. If we want to encourage people to see further education as a viable option, they need the confidence that the funding is there. On a slightly different note, the Minister will remember the conversation he had with me and Anthony Bravo about the funding issues around apprenticeships, and I hope he has been able to make progress in removing some of the uncertainty, which, as we discussed, was creating delays in expanding the number of apprenticeships.

In conclusion, education is all about fulfilling the potential of every citizen in the country. It is the reason why I became a Member of Parliament, and why I am fascinated by the issues we are discussing today. Vocational qualifications have a huge part to play in getting young people on to a career ladder and in helping us all to stay in a lifelong programme of employment. The country faces a productivity gap, which we need to address head on, and although infrastructure investment and better ways of trading with other nations are important, skills are central. The Minister knows that and in him we have an effective champion in the Government. I look forward to hearing his thoughts.

Photo of Chris White Chris White Conservative, Warwick and Leamington 3:13 pm, 9th June 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael on securing this important debate and on raising vocational education’s profile in Parliament. I cannot claim to have been a college principal, but I can claim to have studied a BTEC ordinary national certificate in engineering, which is probably as rare as hen’s teeth in this place.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

It may not be as rare as my vocational qualification. I failed my ONC at the City College in London, but I passed intermediate paint technology.

Photo of Chris White Chris White Conservative, Warwick and Leamington

I do not think there is any possible response to that.

As a result of my background, I am a passionate supporter of further education. Warwickshire College, whose headquarters are in my constituency, is one of the best such colleges in the country. It has six centres across Warwickshire and Worcestershire, with more than 15,500 students attending each year. It offers more than 1,000 courses across 20 different subject areas, including management. It has the highest enrolment among 16 to 18-year-old students and one of the highest success rates among larger FE colleges in the country.

To its credit, the college has developed strong links with employers. As result, it trains more than 1,750 apprentices every year in a variety of sectors, from agriculture and farriery to construction and digital media—an area that colleges are beginning to embrace with open arms. The college offers a broad range of courses and subject areas, and it is, importantly, addressing two national skill shortage areas.

Capital investments of more than £10 million mean that two important projects—in horticulture and engineering—will be completed by September, ready for students attending from the start of the academic year. As part of the college’s expansion and development, a new engineering building is being constructed at Warwick’s Trident College. The new complex will comprise specialist engineering workshops, 12 teaching labs, three computer labs and three specialist, tailored engineering technology labs. The aim is to create the capacity to meet demand for an additional 285 advanced and 253 higher apprenticeships in the manufacturing, mechanical, electrical, electronic, automotive and product-creation sectors, providing skills the country desperately needs.

There have been fantastic achievements in terms of the number of students who progress directly into higher education, although that is not the essential goal. To mention just a few examples, the number in agriculture is 95%; in construction, it is 94%; and in computing and IT, it is an astonishing 99%.

As parliamentarians, we must discourage the perception that further education is a second-tier choice—to be taken up only if one’s first preference has not been achieved. In fact, FE is quite the reverse. Many students now see the benefits of a practical and vocational education that provides them with the skills and real-life work experience they need to get on.

Links with business are key for the FE sector. Businesses can recruit from colleges, but they can also help them financially and practically as they tailor courses to the needs of business and the wider workforce. For the last 18 months, for example, the college has been involved in the trailblazer apprenticeship scheme, which allows employers—in this case, Jaguar Land Rover—to partner with the college to reform apprenticeship frameworks and ensure that they are the best training for future employees. In engineering, the college also has links with more than 40 small and medium-sized enterprises, with the aim of increasing that to 65.

Nationally, support from the Government is essential. The Government have done a great deal over the last five years to invest in vocational education. Two million apprenticeships were started during the last Parliament, and I fully support the aim of delivering 3 million by 2020. Businesses can also support vocational education. As I mentioned, encouraging them to partner with colleges and other FE providers benefits all concerned.

We must work hard to ensure that vocational education’s contribution to the economy is more widely acknowledged and that there is appropriate recognition for vocational education. We must commit to working towards parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications by continuing to raise the standards and promote the benefits of vocational education.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North 3:19 pm, 9th June 2015

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger, for a Westminster Hall debate early in the new Session. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael on securing this interesting and important debate to celebrate national vocational qualifications day.

Romsey and Southampton North is quite unusual in that within the constituency there is no 16-to-18 state sector provision, which means that those in that age range are effectively exported out. That is sometimes seen as a negative, but I regard it as something of a benefit, because it gives me the opportunity to work with a range of college principals, albeit at the edge of my constituency.

For example, I am an advisory governor at the further education college in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mims Davies. For many years I have been invited annually to Eastleigh College to present the awards at its apprenticeship celebration event. That is exactly the sort of initiative that we want to happen everywhere, to celebrate the apprentices and their achievements, as well as the achievements of the employers who have taken the plunge and taken apprentices on. Many employers arrive annually having been nominated by their apprentices for the brilliant experience that they give young people in the Hampshire area.

We want more vocational qualifications and more high- quality apprenticeships. It is crucial that apprenticeships should provide the quality training that young people deserve. I have been pleased over the past nearly 12 months to have a business administration apprentice in my office. That has been a learning curve for us and for her. I hope that she has benefited from the experience. I guess we will know about that at the end of it, and I hope that she will get a good certificate, which she will be able to take to future employers, or potentially to university. We have a responsibility to practise what we preach, and that was one reason for my taking on an apprentice. I was struck by Eastleigh College’s determination to promote its provision and to make things as easy as possible for the employer. That is crucial. Sometimes there are far too many barriers, although many are perceived rather than real.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Lady is right that taking on an apprentice—and I have taken on two so far in my current role—helps to educate us as employers about the challenges in taking on such a responsibility. It is hugely rewarding, and we should celebrate the employers’ role.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North

The hon. Gentleman is right. Taking on apprentices is great for us, for the employers, and for the economy and everyone else. I have long held that the first rung on the employment ladder is the hardest, and that is why vocational qualifications are so important. They provide a fantastic bridge from school to work. Whether they be tech-levels or technical awards, and at whatever age they are achieved, we need the suite of qualifications of which they are part to be attractive and available to students, and we need it to have parity of esteem, as various hon. Members have said.

Life is about more than a clutch of good GCSEs. It is about acquiring the life skills necessary to make the transition to the world of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the soft skills that can be obtained from work experience and vocational qualifications—whether in retail, catering or the example that he used of sport. Such opportunities can also build confidence, which is important for young people who too often have just experienced the classroom, and who lack the interaction that they will need in later life to play a constructive role in the world of work.

Southampton has some great vocational qualification providers, such as City College in the constituency of my hon. Friend Royston Smith and the Southampton Engineering Training Association, which I enjoyed visiting last summer for its annual presentation and celebration evening. There are hundreds of courses for thousands of students, which all provide obvious and successful routes into work. City College makes much of the fact that its young people who undertake vocational qualifications often go on to be self-employed. They will be small business owners, employing other people. We need to encourage that, because if every small business employed one more person we would have zero unemployment.

At the SETA evening, 70 young men and one girl received engineering qualifications. We still have an enormous amount of work to do to encourage young women to take up engineering qualifications and follow that vocational route. We must make sure that, just as GCSE and A-level results are celebrated annually in local papers, when we see young people with brilliant achievements and fantastic certificates, there is also an opportunity to celebrate just as vehemently and vigorously those who get vocational qualifications. It is great to see exactly that happening on the website of the Edge Foundation, but I would love to see more of it in my local paper.

Nic Dakin made a point about careers advice, which is crucial. In my constituency there are some great examples of best practice, with opportunities to expand on career options and choices. The Romsey School has done brilliant work, particularly with young girls, on vocational qualifications. They set up their own beauty studio in the school, to try to get across the message that science qualifications are needed to go on vocational courses in beauty and hairdressing. That was a practical way of conveying to girls the importance of continuing with science studies, when perhaps they were not finding them that interesting.

Just up the road is The Mountbatten School, which has done brilliant work linking up with local businesses. That is crucial; we must have such opportunities to bring companies into schools, so that young people can see the opportunities and the range of jobs out there. I take part annually in what The Mountbatten School refers to as its enrichment day. The poor year 10 children have to do a mock interview with me. They appeared slightly horrified the first year I did it, because they were used to doing it with their teachers, but the event has expanded every year, and the school now brings in the Rotary Club and eminent members of the local chamber of commerce. The children are confronted with real live employers and they go through a real interview, so they understand how tough it can be to make that important first impression. We must make sure that 14-year-olds make the right decisions about their future, based on what they want, enjoy and are interested in, and that they avoid the age-old problem of choosing to do exactly what their friends are doing.

I congratulate the Edge Foundation, which has done great work on establishing, celebrating and promoting VQ day. It plays a crucial part in reinforcing parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. In the words of Lord Baker,

“By 2022, 90% of the most in-demand job areas will be accessible through technical, practical and vocational learning.”

That gives a very clear steer about the scale of the opportunity, and we must make sure that we grab it with both hands.

Today I have given some local examples of best practice throughout Hampshire, and there are others throughout the country. We need to celebrate and promote them, and make sure that they are rolled out across the country.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 3:27 pm, 9th June 2015

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing the debate. I was of course very disappointed at his re-election to the House, but I notice that he is back with an increased majority; that is a testament to the work that he has put in, in his constituency. He reminded us of some of the reasons for his re-election by making an excellent speech in an excellent debate.

I want to add a word of praise and congratulation to the organisers of vocational qualifications day. The wisdom of the hon. Member for Stroud in securing the debate has been much in evidence as we have listened to a wide range of excellent speeches. It can be seen, at the beginning of the present Parliament, that there is great interest in this field of policy, and a shared agenda across the House for strengthening it and moving it forward. We all know how important it is to our economic future.

I also congratulate the Minister. I am disappointed that he is doing the job and I am not; but there is no better member of his party to serve in that role. He has taken a huge interest in the subject and has bothered to spend a great deal of time in colleges, talking to students, teachers and principals. I hope that he will bring energy to the brief, and maintain and sustain it in the months and hopefully years ahead. What this field of policy needs above anything else is stability, and I very much hope that he will provide that. For my part, I will provide the Minister with all the support and scrutiny that he has enjoyed over the last year. When he does well, he will get hymns of praise, and when he does badly he will get a forensic verbal assault here and elsewhere. I hope that the hymns of praise greatly outnumber the words of verbal assault.

However, I will start where the hon. Member for Stroud started: I too welcome the fact that, rather belatedly, the Chancellor has woken up to the grave productivity crisis that our country confronts. The truth is that we have the worst productivity record in the G7. There is something like a 20% productivity gap between ourselves and our major competitors, and it is not getting better; it is getting worse. We have to ask ourselves what it is about this country today that means that despite our long history of genius and innovation on these islands, what the rest of the G7 finishes making on a Thursday afternoon takes us until the end of Friday to get done. If we want to break out of the cost-of-living challenges that many families still confront, we have to earn more as a country, and skills are absolutely at the core of that problem.

I look forward to the Chancellor putting his money where his mouth is in the Budget later in the parliamentary Session, because of course setting out a Budget that seeks to raise UK productivity is incompatible with further withdrawing money from skills and from the Minister’s domain.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not implying that workers in this country do not work as hard as workers elsewhere. Perhaps he will agree that, when considering productivity, he cannot ignore either the figures on congestion on our roads or the need for us to trade more broadly as a nation.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

That is absolutely right. The right hon. Lady helpfully points to the fact that global competition is intensifying, and if we are to improve our performance in trade markets in which we have been losing market share during the last four or five years, we will have to raise our game. Skills are absolutely at the core of that, because there is a risk, given the pattern of economic development over that time, that our country is becoming a cheap labour economy. About 80% to 85% of the jobs that have been created have been low-paid jobs, which is a problem if we are to earn our way out of the cost of living crisis that we are trapped in. There are not necessarily the column inches devoted to this issue that there should be;

The Economist has done a good job, as has Nigel Nelson of the

Sunday People

, in highlighting the risk associated with this change.

We have to look hard at the competition that we are up against. When the programme for international student assessment results in Shanghai are so much better than ours, when China is about to spend more on science than the whole of Europe put together and when four out of the top 10 global tech firms are Asian, we can see how the battle for good jobs will intensify over the next 10 years, and the risk is that we will lose it. We will not beat the global competition without a much bigger and bolder plan to improve the skills of our country in the years ahead.

Of course, that situation has particular consequences for not only families but young people. All of us now serve the younger generation, which is the first generation in a century that is worse off than the generation that came before it. Social mobility is, in effect, going into reverse; none of us can be proud of that, and all of us must want to alter it. Young people in particular desperately need breakthroughs in this policy area, and I know that the Minister is absolutely focused on it, like a laser.

I hope that the Minister will use this debate and this great day to begin telling us a bit about an ambitious vision for system reform—reform that is evolutionary, perhaps, but revolutionary in scale. The truth is that although we talk about a system of technical education in this country, we do not have a system worthy of the name. We have a piecemeal, ad hoc system of institutions, exams and funding entitlements that are yoked together, often in a very rudimentary way. That does not allow young people from the age of 14 a clear line of sight for a technical education career that goes up to the degree level of skill, which many hon. Members have talked about, celebrated and underlined as being critically important.

In his speech, my hon. Friend Nic Dakin forensically exposed the inadequacies of the current system. If I might be so bold, I will throw a few suggestions on to the pile that hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Stroud, have given us this afternoon. In our schools, there has to be a bigger and bolder effort to expose more 14-year-olds to technical education. That is why I support many of the reforms pioneered by Lord Baker. I hope that the Minister, with his colleagues at the Department for Education, can continue to lobby for practical and empirical subjects.

I hope that we make serious progress in building a stronger careers service during this Parliament. I think it was the CBI, of all organisations, that said before the election that the careers service in this country was “on life support”. That situation will not help us to compete with the global competition that we now confront. Although small amounts of money were offered before the election, the Minister will know, and in his heart believe, that that was not a solution to the problem, given its scale. We need a radical increase in apprenticeships; I am glad that there is all-party consensus on that. The Minister will know that we intend to focus constantly on ensuring that quantity does not come at the expense of quality. Quite simply, there is no point in putting our people on to programmes that do not genuinely equip them with the skills to compete globally. I know that he, too, cares about that issue passionately.

However, the bigger and more complicated question is about the whole system of qualifications, entitlements and funding arrangements for our constituents who are aged between 18 and 24. At the moment, there is not a smooth pathway on a technical education track for our constituents in that age range. There are entitlements to maintenance, which stop at the age of 18 but restart at the age of 24, with the availability of advanced learning loans. The funding entitlements for colleges differ according to whether their students are under 18, between 18 and 24, or over 24. There is a quagmire of qualifications. There are too many qualifications; they are too disjointed; they are delivered at far more cost in England than in Scotland; and, frankly, the whole field of technical qualifications needs a good root-and-branch review. I know that there has already been some simplification of the system, but we have much further to go.

Crucially, there must be a revolution in the collaboration between further education and higher education. Hon. Members made some very good contributions this afternoon about the need to join those systems up. It is not good enough that just 2% or 3% of apprentices go on to degree-level skills; we will not compete globally if that situation continues. There have been some welcome advances, which I know the Minister helped to drive through before the election, but there must be a revolution in the number of apprentices going on to degree-level skills. Apprenticeships should be a route to the top in the same way that doing A-levels and going to university is. At the moment, I believe that many people are not taking the apprenticeship route because they know that the ladder only goes so far up the wall. We want an apprenticeship to be a fast track to the top, in the same way that a degree at a good university is.

I know that all of this work will be detailed and involved, and there are few better minds than that of the Minister to puzzle all of it through. However, his bigger challenge will of course be the funding settlement that he will have to contend with. As the last Government put up our national debt to £1.5 trillion, this Government will have to deliver some savings. I hope that they will also sensibly raise some taxes from those who can afford to pay just a little bit more. The Budget will tell us more.

If we are to close the productivity gap that our country confronts, we must support technical education in a radically new way. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe made an excellent point when he sounded the alarm about the 24% cut in adult skills delivered in-year.

During the many visits he made before the election, the Minister will have been lobbied about some colleges now being unviable. I know this because I visited many colleges after him. Some colleges are at risk of falling over without urgent action this year. On top of that, a third of the cuts announced by the Chancellor last week are set to hit the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education. Many colleges are already on the brink. The Minister will have to move fast with his colleagues at the Treasury to ensure that colleges do not fall over and become unviable, despite the Chancellor saying that we need to fix the productivity gap, and many in this House saying, “Look, technical education is key to this.”

The Minister will also want to, or have to, consider other funding pressures, including the performance of advanced learning loans for those over 24, because they are vastly underperforming at the moment. There has to be a sevenfold increase in the number of people taking up these loans if the budget is to be consumed. I want to put on record my thanks and congratulations to the Association of Colleges and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education for their work in consistently highlighting this risk.

I hope that the Minister shows us a little bit of leg this afternoon as regards his plans for system reform. We famously designed a wonderful system of technical education for the new Germany after the war, but forgot to implement a similar blueprint for our own country. Perhaps it is time to move on and introduce system changes of our own. I hope that the Minister can tell us about those changes. I hope that he can say a bit more about his ambitious plans to devolve control over skills to local authorities, and particularly city regions. Many people throughout the country told me that they would not have had to contend with a 24% cut to the adult skills budget this year if they had just been given the budget they were entitled to and were allowed to make decisions about priorities much more locally.

I hope that the Minister tells about his conversations with the new Minister for Universities and Science, whose father was rather unfair in attacking his lack of exposure to science as a young man. I have always found that new Minister a thoughtful, clever and progressive individual. I hope that the Minister here today and the new Minister in BIS will make a good double act, because, heaven knows, there is an awful lot of work to do.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education) 3:42 pm, 9th June 2015

Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship during my first outing in Westminster Hall since the election and my reappointment as Skills Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael on securing this important debate. He congratulated the Edge Foundation on setting up this day of celebration of all that is good in technical and professional education, and all those people, young and not so young, who take advantage of those opportunities to secure qualifications that enrich their lives and promote their careers. This is an excellent debate with which to kick off the deliberations in this five-year Parliament. Technical and professional education has an important role to play in making our economy more productive and providing opportunities for all people in all parts of the country.

Before getting into the meat of my argument, I want to deal with a few issues raised by hon. Members. First, it is important to say that the 24% cut in the adult skills budget—in the allocations offered to colleges and providers —is obviously an average figure and, more importantly, relates to the non-apprenticeship portion of the adult skills budget. It does not take a genius to work out that if the overall scale of a budget is reduced and the size of an important element in it is doubled, there will be larger reductions in what is left. Even I could work it out. That is what has happened to the non-apprenticeship portion of the adult skills budget. We have reduced the overall budget and doubled the spending on adult apprenticeships funded out of that budget. That has necessitated rather larger cuts in that particular area.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does not the Minister agree that by doing that certain activities currently very much valued by employers will disappear from the offer that is available locally?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I fear that cuts often require difficult choices to be made. Colleges are all trying to ensure that they make economies chiefly through efficiencies and in areas of lower value. Following on from that, I should like to correct something said by Mr Sheerman, who is no longer in the Chamber, about the relative value of full-time FE courses and apprenticeships. I am not for a minute suggesting that full-time FE courses do not have a positive impact—they do—but their positive impact on people’s earnings between five and seven years later is not nearly as high as the positive impact of apprenticeships. We have just done one of the biggest data studies undertaken by Government, matching people’s education performance and their earnings as recorded by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Almost 500,000 individuals were covered by this study, which found that a level 2 apprenticeship leads to approximately a 16% improvement in the individual’s earnings five to seven years later, whereas the impact for a full-time level 2 is roughly 6%. At level 3 it is 16% for those on an apprenticeship, against 4% on a full-time course. There are positive impacts from full-time courses and some of those courses—not least the BTEC mentioned by my hon. Friend—may well have a higher value, but the averages suggest that it is sensible to do what the Government have been doing and shift resources out of full-time FE courses into apprenticeships, while continuing to invest in full-time FE.

My neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, mentioned the in-year cuts to both the DFE and BIS budgets. Although I cannot go into detail, because it would be way above my pay grade to do so, he should not assume that the only way of cutting the unprotected part of the DFE budget is by cutting funding for 16 to 19 education, including funding for FE colleges. He should also not assume that the only way of cutting the part of the BIS budget that has been subject to in-year cuts is by cutting funding for FE colleges. No doubt everybody will have to make a contribution, but he should not assume that those cuts involving large figures will fall entirely on the sectors that he so admirably represents in the House and in this debate.

We are at the start of a five-year Parliament, so we have a bit of time to think and plan and be strategic, and to try to build something that addresses some of the problems that have afflicted us as a country for decades. There has been a huge amount of agreement across the House about the nature of the productivity challenge that we face as a country. We have lower productivity—all that means is how much value people are producing for every hour that they work—in part, I am glad to say, because we manage to find jobs for people with very low skills who are less productive. Of course, a large number of the least productive workers in countries not too far from here are not employed, and by necessity that means that their average productivity per hour of employment is higher. I prefer to live on this side of the channel rather than on the other side, where that is so, but that does not in any sense diminish the challenge to us of ensuring that the productivity of everybody, whether relatively low-skilled or high-skilled, is improving so that they can command higher wages, pay higher taxes and have better lives for themselves and their families. That is, of course, a fundamental challenge for this Parliament.

The Opposition spokesman was right to say that Members of all parties have long bemoaned our inability to create a system of technical and professional education that commands the same level of understanding in the country, and in families and schools, and in this House—not to mention the level of respect—as the academic education system, which is admired around the world. He is absolutely right to challenge the Government in these early weeks to grapple with the problem systematically, rather than in a piecemeal way, and I hope and intend to rise to the challenge.

I will resist the temptation, long though my legs are, to show too much of them in my response to the debate. That is not because I am coy, because I am not naturally that coy, as you may have noticed, Sir Roger, but because it is a little premature for me as a Minister, although I was in this post for 10 months before the election, to start rushing to judgment. I would like to hear from others, and it has been tremendously useful to hear the contributions of my hon. and right hon. Friends and Opposition Members on the elements of the system that they see as needing to be reformed, changed or improved.

I also want to learn from other countries. The Opposition spokesman referred to the example that we always beat ourselves over the head about: the German system of technical education. He is right to say that we honourably and admirably had some part to play in creating that system, but it is also right to observe that it is the product of a deep economic, educational and social culture that is somewhat different from ours. We need to ensure that we are looking to learn from relevant examples that are, in a sense, transferable and applicable to our system. I am keen to look at—I encourage Members to come forward if they have better example—the Dutch example. The Dutch economy is more similar to our own in culture and approach than the German one. It is smaller, but it has what we would see as—I am not sure that the Dutch would accept this—Anglo-Saxon features. As the Opposition spokesman said, they seem to have a better system of clear routes through education to high, degree-level qualifications.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

The Minister is absolutely right to sound a warning that it is impossible to import one system wholesale to one economy from another. The key thing we have to learn from the German system is that smooth pathway through. A couple of things have been mentioned in the debate that are important to incorporate into some of the Minister’s research, of which one of the most important is the growth in self-employment and enterprise. There are superb colleges up and down this country—not least Sheffield College and others in the Peter Jones network—that are doing a first-class job in encouraging an entrepreneurial revolution among our young people. They are a good example of how we cannot simply import a system from a country such as Germany that does a much less good job at fostering a culture of self-employment, the skills for self-employment and a yen for enterprise, too.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education)

I thank the shadow Minister for that; it was very interesting and I entirely agree with him. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised this, too, but when people are working for 50 or 60 years of their lives in a fast-changing economy, we have to consider the kind of qualifications that are relevant by being sufficiently flexible to cope with the different employment situations that a person is likely to want to go through, which may well include working for themselves, setting up their own business and acting in a whole range of different circumstances.

My new and fantastic Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris—she is the Select Committee’s loss, but my gain—is also operating as the PPS for my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science. If any Member here would like to come through her with any suggestions or answers to the following questions to which I will be seeking sensible and systematic answers over the next few months, I will be incredibly grateful. The first question is: what do people think should start at 14 and what do people think should start at 16? That is an age-old debate that will not be settled in this parliamentary term, but we should have it again, not least when we look at the work of the university technical colleges and Lord Baker in introducing to the system some education that starts at 14. Should that become a common thing or remain an exception to the rule?

The second question is about the institutions. We have all talked with affection, admiration and praise about the further education colleges in our constituencies, and I am lucky enough to have two such institutions. Are those institutions in their current guise equipped for all the demands that we are going to place on them and the financial pressures that are inevitable, even if we can maintain funding broadly at the current level? Should they specialise more? Should some of them focus more on higher level skills and others more on training for people who have not received an adequate education at school? What institutions do we need, what institutions have we got and how can we get from one to the other? That naturally leads to the question of who should be making such decisions. Should it be the Minister in his Whitehall office with the help and guidance of the Skills Funding Agency, should it be local enterprise partnerships, or should it be combined authorities on the Greater Manchester northern powerhouse model? Who is properly placed with a sufficient understanding of the local economy to decide what institutions are needed locally to meet the full range of young people’s and employers’ needs?

The final question, although it is only the final one because I will probably run out of time soon—there will be many other questions—is on qualifications. The shadow Minister raised it, as did several other Members who talked about the different qualifications and how badly known and badly recognised they are among parents and young people. Do we have the right set of qualifications? Have we been prescriptive enough? We have weeded out a whole lot of very weak qualifications, and I think we can all agree that that was a necessary and a good step, but do we need to be more prescriptive about the combinations of qualifications that denote a sensible route to a high-quality career and so should receive the benefit of taxpayer funding?

The questions about who should be involved in making the decisions about local institutions and qualifications will lie at the core of the long-term system plan that the shadow Minister has urged on me. While I know that he will be forensic and at times even a little brutal—I know, because I have witnessed it before—in his examination, I also know that he and all other Members will make a positive contribution, because ultimately we want the same thing: a country where everyone can get the skills they need, at whatever point in their life that they feel the need for them, so that they can prosper and have fulfilling lives.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud 3:58 pm, 9th June 2015

Thank you, Sir Roger, for chairing this effective and excellent debate. I thank all the contributors, too, because the debate has been constructive and allowed us to set out the issues. I also thank the Edge Foundation for all it has done to make the Vocational Qualifications Day work, because, as we have all acknowledged, it is an important day. The trackneeds reform, more rigorous thought and more attention to detail. We should be doing more on productivity, and there is a lot more we could be doing to ensure that young people understand what vocational qualifications are and why they should be seeking them.

Above all, it is a question of ensuring that our education system is adaptable and responsive enough to the emerging modern economy that we are all part of. We cannot stop at our shores, because we are in a global economy, and that has a significant impact on how we should operate. The Minister’s three questions will help to focus what we do in the next five years so that in five years’ time we can say, “Britain is well placed in the provision of skills. We have matched our competitors in productivity and we have demonstrated that we are concerned that each and every one in our country can make the most of themselves and fulfil their lives in a way that reflects their aspirations and the emerging economy.” We have the opportunity to make this a country that is founded on good working practices, strong ethics in education and the appreciation of society.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered annual Vocational Qualifications Day.