Apprenticeships and Skills Policy — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:48 pm on 8th January 2019.

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Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton Minister of State (Education) 3:48 pm, 8th January 2019

Not personally, certainly. I feel quite clear about what I am trying to achieve. I congratulate Judith Cummins on securing the debate. I wish I had more time; I do not. I will debate this matter weekly if that is what Members want, because there could be nothing more important for the productivity and success not just of this country, but of individuals.

I am incredibly fortunate in my job. I get to see so many young people who are passionate and incredibly enthusiastic about the careers that they get through apprenticeships. Their sense of enthusiasm strengthens my faith that we are on the right road. It tells us not only that the direction of travel is right and that parity of esteem between the academic and technical routes is achievable, but that apprenticeships open an alternative door that would not otherwise exist for people—often bright and very gifted young people, but also older people—for whom school and exams did not work.

T-levels and apprenticeships will form the basis of our new technical offer, building the skills of the population. They will be mirror images—one predominantly work-based and the other predominantly study-based, but both leading to skilled employment and opportunities for further study up to and beyond degree level, through apprenticeships or otherwise.

The hon. Member for Bradford South is absolutely right that Bradford is a great city, but 15% with no qualifications is quite a shocking figure in comparison with the national average. She raised the issue of apprenticeships not being worth the paper they were written on, but that was what sat behind all the reforms. We have brought in money from the levy, protected the term, mandated 20% off-the-job training and introduced end-point assessment.

The hon. Lady is right that apprenticeship starts are down, but this is not just about numbers; it is about quality. Before the reforms, a lot of people doing apprenticeships did not even know that they were on them. It was a way of bringing in cheap labour, and we wanted to change that. It is not surprising that the starts went down to begin with, because it was a very big change, but they are now rising, and that rise has been significant at level 4, level 5 and above. I urge the hon. Lady and her businesses in Bradford to contact the National Apprenticeship Service, which I know will be very happy to work with her and with businesses locally.

We are bringing non-levy paying small and medium-sized enterprises into the apprenticeship system. I assure the hon. Lady that I am working closely with the Federation of Small Businesses to ensure that we get it right for SMEs, which often find it quite difficult to navigate the new system. I point out that the money raised by the levy is available for redistribution to non-levy payers, so money raised through the levy in London might well end up being redistributed to smaller employers in Bradford, Hull or anywhere else in the country. From April, large levy payers will be able to transfer 25% of their levy pot without restriction, so Emma Hardy might like to have a word with hon. Members for London constituencies to see whether that money can be redistributed.

The hon. Member for Bradford South also mentioned the risk to workers from automation. Some 35% of jobs are set to go in the next 10 years, so the Chancellor has announced the national retraining scheme, a joint venture between the TUC, the CBI and the Government to ensure that we can upskill lower-skilled workers. We are doing much to ensure that this works, especially for workers who may have had a bad experience of education or for whom undertaking more training might cause practical as well as financial problems. We need to ensure that lower-skilled workers get the skills they need and that business gets them as well.

I am glad that my hon. Friend John Howell has lots of university degrees to make up for the fact that unfortunately I do not have any. He is right that schools play a critical role, but schools do not work for everyone, and apprenticeships are often a vital route for young and older people to get a second chance.

I praise the role of unionlearn, which I should have mentioned earlier and which often offers excellent in-work training. The Government give it quite a substantial amount of money, and it will be important to the national retraining scheme. I must also mention work experience, because the 45 to 60-day industry placement is a critical part of the new T-levels. The careers strategy has the Gatsby benchmarks at its heart, so that schools can measure their success. Meaningful encounters with the world of work are an important part of that, and the Careers and Enterprise Company is doing a great job of linking schools to local employers.

Doing a school exam or maths homework makes sense if students can see the jobs that will be out there when they leave school—otherwise it is just another exam or another boring class. For those going into a career in STEM, there is nothing not to like about apprenticeships, which give the skills and work experience needed. Some engineering companies have cut their graduate schemes and are now offering only apprenticeships at level 2 and up to level 3.

Stephen Pound made me smile, as he always does, and mentioned horticulture and landscaping. Only today, I saw some fantastic examples of the apprenticeships that the national parks are offering. I would be very happy to work with him and the all-party gardening and horticulture group. Landscaping is one of the disciplines tested at the WorldSkills competition, which I was privileged to see in Abu Dhabi. He might like to visit the WorldSkills website and see the amazing work of landscapers at the competition.

My hon. Friend Lee Rowley spoke about the skills gap, which the skills advisory panels will be looking at to give us a clearer picture. The reason why apprenticeships are getting such traction is that employers want more than just knowledge; they want skills as well. Many are moving away from graduate schemes, because a degree apprenticeship, for instance, combines both knowledge and skills.