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Bill Rammell: I very much welcomed the opportunity to visit the college in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I agree that the development of the specialised diplomas is one of the most significant educational changes that we have seen in a generation. For it to succeed, we need all universities to recognise them as an admission
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qualification for higher education. All the indications from universities are that that is happening, and I welcome that.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): A young person whose parents have had degree-level education or who come from a professional background is more than four times more likely to access higher education than someone whose parents have a manual occupation and have not been educated to degree level. Given that, does the Minister not think that some of the widening-participation budget that is allocated for retention, which has already been mentioned, might actually be more appropriately spent by universities on targeted outreach work for individuals from schools that traditionally do not access higher education?

Bill Rammell: Our commitment to widening participation, as well as the investment that we have put into that area, is clear and strong. However, we need to keep under review the way in which that money is spent. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to target those schools and communities where access is lowest to ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that people fulfil their talents. That should include the provision of information, advice and guidance.

Adult Apprenticeships

5. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of adult apprenticeships. [187372]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): We recently announced that, for the first time, funding will be targeted specifically at expanding apprenticeships for adults aged over 25. That will mean 30,000 such apprenticeships costing £90 million over the next three years.

Gordon Banks: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he take this opportunity to tell the House what can be done to support not only adult apprenticeships but all apprenticeships in Scotland in the same way as they are supported by the Government in England?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend will know that that is a devolved matter. I have been in discussion with my counterpart in Scotland and I know that they have not sought to make progress on modern apprenticeships in the way that we have most recently on this side of the border. It is a devolved matter and I know that it is the subject of great debate in Scotland.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): In a previous Question Time, the Secretary of State admitted that there was a 40 per cent. drop-out rate for apprenticeships. Does the Minister not agree that that is an extraordinarily high figure and does not justify the huge investment from the Government? What is his Department doing to tackle that unacceptable situation?


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Mr. Lammy: I think that I said to the hon. Lady that completion rates for apprenticeships were currently at 63 per cent. I ought to remind her that completion rates in 1997 were 25 per cent., that there was no inspection and that investment in further education colleges in resources for apprenticeships was nil. The Government recently published their apprenticeship review precisely in order to ensure that quality improves and that more young people are able to take up apprenticeships and complete them.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): In assessing how this welcome programme can involve women, will my hon. Friend look in particular at the recent Select Committee report “Jobs for the girls”, which considered the impact of occupational job segregation on the worrying continuing gender pay gap and the waste of skills in the economy? Will he particularly look at the issues included on how to encourage women over 25 to have the confidence to go into non-traditional jobs, on how the drop-out rate is partly the result of low pay—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister will have an answer.

Mr. Lammy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and for the way in which she continues to champion issues of equality in relation to apprenticeships, particularly for women. I hope that she will be pleased by the recent announcement on apprenticeships, as more money will improve prospects for women. I hope, too, that she will welcome the last chapter of the apprenticeship review, which deals with those equality issues. One thing that it highlights is the need for critical mass pilots to get a number of women in a cohort into a particular sector. In my early weeks in this post, I was pleased to visit Kier construction in Islington, where they were working with women and upskilling them in the construction industry. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that women feel more confident about coming into such sectors at an older age than they might have done when they were aged 16 to 18. That is why the pilots are so important.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am pleased that since 2003-04 we have seen the doubling of completion rates for apprenticeships at both level 2 and level 3, but will the Minister tell us what he will do, first, to make sure that retention and completion rates are higher and, secondly, to disincentivise employers who train people to a particular level but then drop the apprenticeship because the people are economically useful to the company, because that is one of the huge barriers to young people completing their apprenticeship?

Mr. Lammy: On the issue of drop-out, we do everything we can to raise completion rates and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgement in the House this morning, but it is important not to say that young people have “dropped out” of an apprenticeship—they have completed a part of their apprenticeship and often go on to other occupations and valuable work that is right for them. One of the things that we have been keen to do is to ensure that there are programme-led apprenticeships, perhaps for
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young people who are not ready for an apprenticeship. We are absolutely committed to ensuring the quality of apprenticeships, but such young people can work in college, based around the sector, in preparation for an apprenticeship. We believe that that is absolutely key to driving up standards and completion rates. It is also important to acknowledge that in the end this is employment, and the whole thrust of the review is to incentivise employers to recognise the contribution they need to make to their local community so that we are all investing in our young people.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend may be aware that BRUSH, a group of companies in my constituency, is for the first time taking on apprentices in the engineering sector that was decimated in the 1980s and is now re-growing. However, the group has reached the stage of having to put up billboards around the town to attract people to apply for those posts, as people feel, because of the state that engineering has been in for the past decade or so, that there is a problem with its future. What is my hon. Friend doing in his Department to ensure that we promote engineering and the fact that it has a bright future? BRUSH has full books and a healthy future in front of it, so we need to promote the benefits of engineering to young people, because it is the foundation of everything we do in the UK.

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right, which is why we have included in the apprenticeship review a requirement for schools to ensure that there is appropriate careers information about available apprenticeships. In relation to engineering, he will be pleased that SEMTA—the Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance, the sector skills council—has identified careers information and work with schools as a clear priority in its sector skills agreement.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I do not want to be excessively brutal with the Minister—[Hon. Members: “Go on.”] No, I know that he is desperately worried about being forced to repeat what he reluctantly acknowledged at the previous departmental question time, which is that the number of apprentices is falling at all levels. The Leitch report makes it clear that reskilling and upskilling adults who are already in the work force is vital to our economic future, so can the Minister tell us, ideally without more banter and bluff, why the number of adults not yet skilled to level 2, on all types of Learning and Skills Council-funded provision, including workplace training, has plummeted by 620,000—a staggering 42 per cent.—in the past two years?

Mr. Lammy: It is becoming routine to have ding-dongs on this issue in the Chamber every few weeks. What the hon. Gentleman should concentrate on is the number of young people who have started an apprenticeship and the number who have completed one. The number of young people who started an apprenticeship this year is 180,000; the number who started an apprenticeship in 1997 was 65,000, so there has been tremendous progress. The number of young people who completed an apprenticeship this year was 103,000, and we have already discussed the poor
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completion rate when the hon. Gentleman was in power. Those are the figures. That is improvement and he should support the apprenticeship review to ensure that we take it even further forward.

IGCSEs and A-Levels

6. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): When he last met university vice-chancellors to discuss the value of IGCSE and A-level qualifications. [187373]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I meet many vice-chancellors to discuss issues of importance and interest to them, including reforms of our national qualification system. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is for higher education institutions to decide what use they make of all qualifications in their admissions procedures. The recent report undertaken by the 1994 group of universities shows a widespread welcome of the changes being made to A-levels to ensure that they provide the right level of stretch and challenge for those going on to higher education.

Mr. Chope: Does the Minister accept that universities regard IGCSEs as having more academic rigour than GCSEs? Can he explain to my 15-year-old son, who just got an A* in his IGCSE maths, why the Government regard that achievement as being of no value?

Bill Rammell: The qualification is not accredited. Let us look at the facts. IGCSEs are not compatible with the national curriculum. For example, the English language IGCSE does not include compulsory study of Shakespeare or any other author, unlike the GCSE, and an assessment of speaking and listening is optional, whereas it is compulsory for GCSE. Furthermore, there is no non-calculator paper in the maths IGCSE. Those are the concerns. The IGCSE is not an approved qualification for funding, and as it has not been accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, there is no regularised mechanism to ensure comparability with GCSEs.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): In respect of the research-intensive universities, has the Minister considered the impact of the introduction of the A* grade at A-level? Specifically, does he think that the A* grade will increase or decrease the proportion of students from state schools in research-intensive universities?

Bill Rammell: We need to monitor that issue. The latest modelling shows a very marginal change, not the kind of change that my hon. Friend suggests, but I accept that as we move towards an A* qualification, we need to keep the issue under close review.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): May I tell the Minister that he is living in cloud cuckoo land if he does not realise that public confidence in the quality and rigour of public examinations is falling, as evidenced this week by the announcement that students of modern foreign languages will no longer undergo an examination, merely a continual assessment by the teacher? Does he also appreciate that his Government’s
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failure to accept the IGCSE as a proper qualification, when the market clearly believes that it is one, merely adds to the lack of public confidence in the Government’s willingness to maintain standards in our public examinations?

Bill Rammell: There is a real and ongoing problem of Members of the House seeking to run down the qualifications gained by young people in this country. When the director-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education branch examined our A-level system a couple of years ago, he identified that no similar qualification anywhere in the world was as rigorously and regularly tested. It is instructive that Opposition Members talk of the IGCSE, a qualification undertaken predominantly in independent schools. I urge them to concentrate on the needs and interests of the vast majority of children in their constituencies, who do not attend independent schools.

Astronomy Research

7. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the future of astronomy research. [187374]

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): The UK has world-leading expertise in astronomy research, including expertise at Glasgow university in gravitational wave radiation. The Government are increasing the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the main public funder of astronomy research in the UK, by 13.6 per cent. over the next three years. We have asked Research Councils UK, as part of its continuing oversight of the health of disciplines, to conduct a cross-council review of physics research, including astronomy. The review will be led by Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the university of Southampton, and I expect the review panel to report to RCUK in the summer.

Ann McKechin: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments about the good record of Glasgow university, but as he will be aware, its physics department is dependent on the STFC for more than 85 per cent. of its research budget. Does he agree that, pending the outcome of the Wakeham review, it would be premature to cut programmes—by up to 25 per cent. in the case of Glasgow? Instead, and not reaching for the stars, may I ask him to consider a transitional arrangement?

Ian Pearson: I agree that a cut would be premature and it is not happening. Overall, the expected number of astronomy research grants in 2008-09 is 323, which is significantly more than the 247 that there were at the start of the comprehensive spending review period in 2005-06. In this financial year, including the impact of full economic costing, universities will have had a 67 per cent. increase in astronomy funding compared with 2005-06. That represents real investment in university research departments. I congratulate those at the university of Glasgow who undertake astronomy research. They are world class in their field.


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Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I am disappointed to hear the Minister boasting once again about science funding and physics funding, because as a direct result of his decision on STFC funding last year, physicists are saying that there is a crisis. Astronomers, researchers and the Royal Astronomical Society also say that there is a crisis. Does he accept that there is a crisis, or does he think that they are all wrong?

Ian Pearson: I am aware of the number of representations that I have had from the astronomy community and the particle physics community as a result of the STFC’s settlement, but we should look at the facts. There will be no cuts to particle physics grants in the coming financial year. The research grants to astronomy are at their highest level for many years. We have seen a doubling in the science budget. We are spending over £500 million on physics a year, and that figure will go up over the next three years. So we have a sound track record of major investment in physics. Physics is one of the great strengths of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that the Wakeham review will want to take a broad look overall at the health of the discipline.

Apprenticeships

8. Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to encourage apprenticeships. [187375]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): At the heart of our reforms will be the creation of a new national apprenticeships service to drive up the number of apprenticeship places and ensure that young people and adults get the opportunities to succeed.

Chris McCafferty: My hon. Friend will be aware of the enormous welcome for the investment in my constituency, Calder Valley, which has many high-end engineering companies, but what can his Department do to encourage more young people, particularly girls, and women who have taken career breaks into reskilling through engineering apprenticeships?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right to say that in relation to women, there are two issues that are important for engineering. We should make the system flexible enough, and we should have enough advanced apprenticeships to ensure that women returning to work after having children can progress within the profession. I am grateful for the work that we have been able to do to fund WISE—the initiative within engineering to help women return to work—and for the increased places in advanced apprenticeship. The Science, Engineering and, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance and the sector skills councils that cover the range of engineering skills are doing a great deal of work to advertise to women and to ensure that those places are available for them to take up if they want to.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome the importance that the Government attach to increasing the number of apprenticeships, but does the Minister agree that skilled engineers, tradesmen and technicians are in huge demand in the UK economy
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and that many of the current vacancies are being filled by immigrants? What new emphasis can the Government give to apprenticeships to attract young people in the United Kingdom to take up apprenticeships to fill the vacancies that are so important to the employers of this country?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman is right. In a strong economy, in which there has been growth in every quarter, young people in the marketplace compete with people who have arrived in this country from a number of places. That is why we initiated the apprenticeship review, which we published last month. The whole thrust of that is to make it easier for businesses to take on young apprentices and adults. One important thing in relation to engineering, given the size of some of the companies, is group training associations. Through them a small engineering company, perhaps low down in the supply chain, can cluster together with a training provider. There is then a hub and spoke model, in which there is someone to deal with the training and necessary bureaucracy, and the company can have the apprentice it needs.

Leitch Report

10. Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): What progress has been made towards implementing the recommendations of the Leitch report. [187377]

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): Last summer, the Government published “World Class Skills”, which sets out our plans for implementing the Leitch recommendations. To support that ambitious reform programme, total Government investment in adult skills will increase to £5.3 billion by 2010-11. That increase in investment will support more than 7 million learners in the period 2008-09 to 2010-11.

Mrs. James: In Swansea, there is a wonderful flagship development called the SA1 project, in which small and medium-sized enterprises can relocate to an old dockland area. Many of those companies have fewer than 20 employees and they are reluctant to invest in skills and training because of time and financial pressures. Will the Secretary of State consider how we can invest in and support them by advising and guiding them on how they can invest in the training and skills agenda?

Mr. Denham: I am sure that my hon. Friend heard my earlier statement about investment in the leadership and management of small and medium-sized enterprises in England. That is precisely designed to ensure that the leadership of small companies understand their skills needs and are supported in using public money. We have shown that that model works in England and we are expanding it dramatically. I hope that the devolved Administrations, who bear responsibility for skills in their areas, will look at it and see what would be appropriate for their circumstances.


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