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5 Nov 2003 : Column 870

Vocational Education

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

4.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Generations of politicians, educationists and industrialists have grappled with the challenge of making vocational education a success. I think that all hon. Members would accept that they have largely failed. No single speech, policy announcement or reform of the system will be enough to meet that awesome challenge. This debate is important, however, because it will shine a light on the Government's view that high-quality vocational education is central to the future success of our country and expose the contrasting agendas promoted by the respective parties.

Ironically, there is significant consensus among Members on both sides of the House as to why vocational education matters. It matters because we will never have a fair society or a successful economy if our post-16 participation and attainment levels remain among the worst in the OECD. It also matters because there is a significant skills deficit at technician and craft level compared with France and Germany, and because young people need a variety of ways in which they can progress and achieve on their journey to the world of work and responsible adulthood.

Far too often, opinion formers and policy makers—of all political persuasions and none—have given the impression that the only journey worth making is via the academic or conventional route. This Government's education reform agenda is about 100 per cent. of young people, not only the 50 per cent. who we want to access higher education by 2010. Vocational education matters because employers of all sizes in the private, public and voluntary sectors need well qualified young people. But, at the beginning of the 21st century, being well qualified must also involve possessing good communication, interpersonal, problem-solving, teamwork and leadership skills. In a dynamic global economy, adults can no longer count on one job—perhaps even two, three or four—for life. Lifelong learning must support a new concept, namely employability for life. Perhaps most importantly of all, today's young people are the parents of tomorrow, and educational failure fans the flames of low aspirations and inter-generational economic and social exclusion. These are all reasons why vocational education matters.

Let me take this opportunity briefly to remind hon. Members of the noble attempts that have been made through history to make a success of vocational education. In the 19th century, the state of vocational and technical education was repeatedly criticised, most notably in the Samuelson royal commission on technical education in 1884. The pattern of technical education that developed in the 19th century was institutionally marginalised from mainstream education. Whereas in France and Germany technical education was allied to general education, in Britain a divide developed between the two, separating skills and knowledge. The divide was cemented in divisions between Government Departments and agencies throughout the 20th century. The Board of Education, created in 1900, was to remain

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separate—as the Ministry or Department of Education—from the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Employment for almost the entire century. The Departments were finally brought together into the Department for Education and Employment in 1995.

Despite the Education Act 1944—the Butler Act—which for the first time required local education authorities to provide further education, vocational and technical education failed to develop clear, high-standard qualification routes or institutions of study linked to schools and the labour market. Curriculum and qualifications authorities for academic and vocational qualifications, and funding channels for post-school education and training, remained divided.

The Manpower Services Commission was developed by the then Department of Employment. The MSC subsequently turned into the Training Commission and was then followed by the network of training and enterprise councils in the 1990s. The desire to improve links between schools and the world of employment led to the creation of the technical and vocational education initiative in the early 1980s. The TVEI saw significant investment in vocational school-based education—at its height, £141 million a year, using 1999–2000 prices as a benchmark. But Whitehall turf wars and the fact that the then Department of Education and Science was told of the initiative only at the very last moment—the mind boggles—meant that, while the TVEI was widely welcomed by schools, it had little impact on the thinking of the DES, and it was eventually phased out.

The Government do not intend to repeat the mistakes of history. Rather, we seek to learn the lessons of that history. We have charged Mike Tomlinson with the responsibility for leading a working group on 14 to 19 reform. The group, which we hope will produce its final report next summer, has been asked to address three main areas. The first is the need for a much stronger vocational offer, with a firm underpinning of general education. The second will involve ensuring that assessment within all programmes across the 14 to 19 phase is fit for purpose. The third is the development of a unified framework of qualifications suitable for young people across the whole range of ability.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): In my constituency, fewer young people go to university than in any other. In such areas, the vocational route is probably even more important than some of the university options that are currently exciting Members in all parts of the House. I hope that my hon. Friend will continue his good work, but will he also consider what is described as the navigation—the way in which people can move on from qualification to qualification? It is still difficult for young people to see a way forward into their 20s.

Mr. Lewis: I entirely agree. Our objective should be to help all young people enter skilled employment via either higher education or an alternative high-status vocational route. If we are to achieve that, we shall need the right provision in each area, especially for those over 16. That is why we have asked local learning and skills councils to conduct area reviews, so that each community has the right combination of institutions and we can deliver the progression route to all young

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people. My hon. Friend has campaigned and crusaded to that end in his constituency, because he understands that the raising of aspirations is one of the greatest and most fundamental challenges facing many constituencies.

Over the past year, as well as asking Mike Tomlinson to look at education for 14 to 19-year-olds, we have published our proposals for the future of further and higher education, as well as our national skills strategy. We are establishing a number of building blocks to achieve long-term cultural change.

For 14 to 16-year-olds, we are introducing a new curriculum with more flexibility to create an individual learning programme. Eighty thousand 14 to 16-year-olds from 1,800 schools are participating in the increased-flexibility programme, which involves their spending a couple of days a week at school, perhaps a couple of days at college, and one day a week with local employers. Eight new GCSEs were introduced in September 2002: applied art and design, applied business, engineering, health and social care, applied information and communications technology, leisure and tourism, manufacturing and applied science. GCSEs in construction and the performing arts will be available from next year.

Subject to parliamentary approval, work-related learning will become a statutory requirement for all 14 to 16-year-olds next year, and in 2005–06 enterprise education will become part of the curriculum.

Connexions is now up and running in every part of England. It involves working with schools to ensure that young people have access to good-quality impartial support when making curriculum and career choices, and giving more intensive support to teenagers when serious barriers get in the way of their learning.

Post-16 modern apprenticeships have never been more popular. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated statement which may be heard when MPs meet business people or educationists—"It is a shame that we do not have apprenticeships any more"—we have a thriving apprenticeship system. A record 230,000 young people are undertaking modern apprenticeships this year. Nevertheless, we want that number to grow significantly in the years ahead. Working with employers sector by sector, we must improve completion rates. Although they are getting better, they are not good enough.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Would the Minister consider paying particular attention to core skills? Surely they should be part of the main thrust of modern apprenticeships. Many young people are put off completing the work by an additional test.

Mr. Lewis: I agree that completion, as well as encouraging more young people to participate in the first place, poses a major challenge, but I believe that if we are to provide a high-status, meaningful option in the form of a modern apprenticeship, we cannot seriously suggest that those participating should not be able to demonstrate that they possess key skills. I acknowledge that the way in which the key skills component is delivered is important, but I do not accept the argument advanced by some that key skills are the reason for the

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significant non-completion rate. The history of non-completion suggests that there is no direct correlation between it and the introduction of the key skills test.

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