Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 80-99)

RT HON JIM KNIGHT MP AND LORD YOUNG OF NORWOOD GREEN

22 OCTOBER 2008

  Q80  Chairman: Okay. Lord Young, with your background, you would be familiar with the kind of people that I am familiar with in my part of Yorkshire, who do an engineering apprenticeship—a two, three or four-year apprenticeship, which is very rigorous. When those people qualify, they are normally hotly competed for by employers. Are you familiar with that?

  Lord Young: Very much so. Yes. You raise an important point when you talk about how we define the apprenticeship, because of the contract with the employer—we will not count them unless at the completion of their apprenticeship they have a contract with an employer. There will be no dubiety about the number of people in an apprenticeship programme—we are quite clear about that.

  Q81  Chairman: Let me continue my understanding of a good apprenticeship. The good apprenticeship is with an employer; it is pretty rigorous training. What is the shortest time in which you can do an apprenticeship in this country, Minister?

  Jim Knight: That depends. Given that an apprenticeship is a bringing together of other qualifications or modules of qualifications, you may have already completed some of the qualifications necessary to qualify as an apprentice prior to starting your apprenticeship training formally, in which case you would be able to go through that training more quickly than if you had to accumulate the whole thing. Clearly, having that experience in the workplace is the fundamental thing that we have been talking about. So, you are going to need to spend a reasonable period of time doing that in order to be able to qualify. That will be the thing that makes the difference.

  Q82  Chairman: So, what is the shortest time in which you can qualify as an apprentice in any sector if leaving school at 16?

  Lord Young: One thing that we should think about, with where they start from, is that we are talking about being employer-led, although there are blueprints, so there is going to be some variation. I would need to consult. Two years comes to mind, but whether it is possible to achieve something in less than that, I would need to check.

  Q83  Chairman: What does Jim think?

  Jim Knight: I would really struggle to be persuaded that anyone could do it in less than a year. There may be circumstances in which you could do it in less than two years, if you have sufficient—

  Q84  Chairman: There are some figures floating around that say that the average length of an apprenticeship is a year.

  Jim Knight: Obviously, we can let the Committee know if our understanding is different from some of the reality, but in terms of getting that practical experience and work experience, so much depends on what you have been doing before going into the apprenticeship. In simple terms, I would say that if you are doing less than a year, getting that detailed understanding is something that we would struggle with.

  Chairman: You have been passed a note, Lord Young.

  Lord Young: Can we compromise on 18 months? The apprenticeship you quoted, the engineering-type apprenticeship, is one end of a scale. There is a rich variety here. If in this country we want to drive up apprenticeships, they have to be related to employer demand—to their needs—within these blueprints, which determine the criteria of quality. At one end will be highly complex engineering, while at the other end there will be completely different types of apprenticeship.

  Q85  Chairman: Have you heard of Gresham's law?

  Lord Young: Yes. It is about the amount of work expanding to fill the time available.

  Q86  Chairman: Well, the Gresham's law I know about is when someone adulterates the currency by melting it down and adding something. Is that not a problem with apprenticeships? You have not mentioned the families of children who might go into apprenticeships. Surely, when we want to sell them the new expanded apprenticeship programme, which is going to get bigger, they should have some guarantee of quality at the heart of it?

  Lord Young: That is where the blueprint comes into it, along with the frameworks that are agreed in consultation with employers, the Sector Skills Council, and, at the moment, the Learning and Skills Council, which is going to change. If you are talking about ensuring that we do not have adulterated apprenticeships, I believe that we have quality controls.

  Q87  Chairman: But in modern-speak, we could talk about brands. We might have a brand that at one end is a gold-plated and wonderful formal apprenticeship, and at the other end is something in retail and distribution that takes six months.

  Lord Young: It would be more than that.

  Q88  Chairman: More than six months? So you cannot do any training that would grant you an apprenticeship in six months?

  Lord Young: Well, if you do not mind me saying so, Chairman, you have one vision of an apprenticeship. I remember this same debate taking place in British Telecom, where there was an argument about whether there should be a two-year or a three-year apprenticeship. When we moved to a three-year apprenticeship, we were working for most of the time in that third year. I do not think that it is the length of time that is important, but what is required in order to learn the vocational skills and all the other components that we talk about, such as acquiring reasonable qualifications and so on. What are the requirements? We are saying probably a figure of about 18 months, my officials are telling me. I would not get hung up on saying that if it is longer that must mean better.

  Q89  Chairman: I never said that. What I believe and what most people believe is that there should be a minimum guarantee of quality—that is what I am trying to tease out.

  Jim Knight: Clearly, quality is absolutely essential, and we have to secure the esteem with which this brand—to use your word—is held by the public. People do value apprenticeships very much, but in the end the quality is measured by the employers themselves and it is the employers who are designing the 180-odd apprenticeship frameworks that we have in place, either directly or through the Sector Skills Council. It is for the employer, while meeting our standard, which we have set at quite a high level around the four things that I set out for you earlier, to design things and look at what qualifications will meet their quality standards. You have to bear it in mind that apprenticeships are at Level 2, Level 3 and Level 4, so there will be differences between the various levels, quite rightly. That is why it is quite difficult for us to come up with a time, because you have to account for prior attainment, different levels and different settings. So to come up with a magic figure for the amount of time that it takes in order to ensure quality is quite difficult.

  Q90  Chairman: Okay. Lord Young, would you not say that many people in this country believe that an apprenticeship trains someone with a skill to do something useful and gets them into a good way of employment?

  Lord Young: Absolutely.

  Q91  Chairman: At reasonable pay?

  Lord Young: Absolutely.

  Q92  Chairman: Is it not something of a confidence trick if you get the parents and a young person to believe in going into an apprenticeship in retail and distribution, for example, when some of our wealthiest, biggest and most successful retailers pay on average £11,500 a year? Does it seem worth doing an apprenticeship if you end up in that situation?

  Lord Young: I think that is a really interesting argument. The answer is yes, in my opinion.

  Q93  Chairman: Could you live on £11,500 a year?

  Lord Young: I would not want to live on that. Of course I would like to drive up pay.

  Q94  Chairman: Many of my constituents have no chance of a decent life because that is all they can earn, even if they take an apprenticeship and work for one of our leading companies. I could not live on £11,500, and I do not think that you could.

  Lord Young: I agree that I would find it a challenge. Are we then saying that we would not recommend that somebody go into that particular industry? I would recommend that, despite the point you make. If we do not train people in that industry, their chances of progressing anywhere are even more limited. We are talking about creating life chances for people, so notwithstanding the difficulties of the wages earned in that industry, we must ask, "Do we enhance their life chances and their skills, and do we make them more socially mobile by putting them through an apprenticeship?" The answer is emphatically yes.

  Q95  Chairman: That is exactly what I wanted you to tell me. In the argument made by the Minister for Schools and Learners it is essential that there is an element of progression. I can see progression in many of the apprenticeship schemes, not just the gold-plated ones.

  Lord Young: Whether it is hairdressing or retail.

  Q96  Chairman: Yes, but what the Bill gets to the heart of, and something that I must ask you in searching terms, is whether there is a problem in that at one end of the apprenticeship market you tend to devalue the currency because the package is not strong enough and the security of employment and the payment at the end are not sufficient.

  Jim Knight: We made an important announcement that we were raising the minimum wage, and from next August the minimum apprenticeship wage will go up from £80 to £95 a week. Obviously, £95 a week is still a long way off £11,500 a year, but it is important that we seek to push up that wage in the same way that we have the national minimum wage and the tax credit. We absolutely agree with where you are coming from. However, in terms of increasing opportunities for people, they are raising their general skill level even by working in a low-paid industry such as retail or hairdressing, which is a very popular apprenticeship for women. There is a gender issue that informed our reasons for wanting to raise the minimum apprenticeship wage. When I go round colleges talking to people on apprenticeships, such as some women doing hairdressing apprenticeships in Brighton last month, I find that many of them want to run their own business. They need to acquire the necessary hairdressing skills, so they do a Level 2 apprenticeship and then advance those skills through a Level 3 apprenticeship, which includes some of the skills that they need to run a business as well as those required to cut hair and do other things that I do not understand because I do not have much hair. That is their ambition, and that will be their progression. New Look, the fashion retailer, is based in my constituency. There is progression in that industry, either towards running your own retail business or up through the company. A member of my family started on the shop floor of Boots, doing temporary Christmas work, and worked her way up to be a well-paid HR professional in retail. There is progression in those industries, but only on the basis of skill, and that is why it is important to enhance skills through apprenticeships.

  Chairman: Minister, I understand what you say, but the background of the social structure of our country is changing. Anyone who saw the recent "Newsnight" item on Detroit will know that we face a great challenge as well-paid manufacturing jobs disappear and are replaced by jobs in distribution and retail which usually pay minimum wage-plus. That is a challenge to the whole concept of what you are trying to achieve through the Apprenticeships Bill, but I have had enough of berating you about that. Let me bring in John.

  Q97  Mr. Heppell: My apologies—I have to leave early so the Chairman has allowed me to get in early. As someone who went through a five-year, time-served, indentured apprenticeship, I think that I have a little experience in these matters, and your explanation of what a good apprenticeship should be is probably as good as I have ever heard, but may I play devil's advocate for a minute? My view is that people who acquire apprenticeships will have greater opportunities in life. I know how much an apprenticeship has helped me—it has been a bedrock throughout my life. You know that you always have something behind you, and that gives you a sense of security, but people ask, "What is actually going to be in the Bill?" I hear what you say about it being symbolic, but if that is all it is, something is wrong. What is it that you can do with the Bill that you cannot do without it?

  Jim Knight: For me, the most important thing is the apprenticeship guarantee. It is really important that we put in place a driver. I do not know whether you have taken evidence from the Learning and Skills Council about the guarantee, but the LSC is not that comfortable, in many ways, with the duty that is being placed on it, because it will be really tough. However, it is an absolute driver on the LSC that the guarantee will be in place by 2013. If we are to achieve our ambition of one in five young people being in an apprenticeship by 2020, we will have to get that guarantee in place. In the same way, we can put duties on the LSC in respect of diplomas—there are other examples of the way in which duties on public authorities work. In the end, however, the LSC can be taken to court by a young person if it has not delivered on its duty. In terms of creating system change—raising the participation age will create system change by engaging every young person—that is crucial. That is the most important thing. Specifying standards so that the frameworks reflect that is important, and that is a good reason to legislate, but if you wanted the main thing, I would say that it was the duty.

  Chairman: Lord Young?

  Lord Young: I was going to say the entitlement plus the standards. The Chair pointed out that we need to know precisely what we mean by an apprenticeship, and we do not want to see the currency devalued. The entitlement, plus defining exactly what we mean by an apprenticeship and what it will give you are important. We all understand the need to drive up the number of apprenticeships if we want to meet the challenges set out in the Leitch report. If we really want to give young people—those who might choose a less academic route initially—a chance to progress in their lives, we need something like the Apprenticeships Bill.

  Mr. Heppell: I am not quite sure whether it was my question or the Minister's answer, but we have managed to empty the back of the room.

  Chairman: I was warned that a group of young people were coming briefly to look at our Committee—it is nothing do with the Minister.

  Q98  Mr. Heppell: What is the Bill actually going to do? There has always been a demand for apprenticeships from young people. People have always wanted to go into them, and there has never been a time when they have not been a popular choice—they certainly were when I was a young lad, and I suspect that they are now. The real problem at the moment is that there is clearly not enough demand from employers. When I was young, as I have said before, it was very much the public sector and the nationalised industries—big companies—that offered the apprenticeships. The effects of that flowed into the rest of the country, and the smaller firms picked up the skilled people from those companies. What in the Bill will induce employers to take on more apprentices?

  Lord Young: It would not just be a Bill that did that. We have a number of strategies, including champions and apprenticeship ambassadors. We have the national apprenticeship vacancy matching service, the idea being that we will simplify the process of taking on apprentices for employers. I do not think that legislation of itself will do that, but we nevertheless see it as fundamental in enshrining rights and requirements. You said that apprenticeships are popular, but we have two problems in terms of hearts and minds. One is convincing employers that apprenticeships are worth their while and that they do add value. The apprenticeship image needs to be enhanced for young people as well. When I asked my 18-year-old son why he did not choose the vocational route rather than university, he answered, "Oh, you are sort of second class. That is for the guys who can't hack it." That is a totally wrong perspective. We have a job to do with young people's perception of apprenticeships and with employers' understanding of why it is important to the success of their business.

  Jim Knight: The demand side is weak in some parts of the country. There is not an apprenticeship culture in London and the south-east, for example. We need to build on that and get it up to the strength of demand and the culture around apprenticeships that we might have in the north-west. More work needs to be done. Measures in the Bill help to achieve that, such as clause 23 on information, advice and guidance to young people. Clause 22 covers the national apprenticeship vacancy matching service, which will work on both supply and demand, while clause 21, which is crucial, is on securing sufficient apprenticeship places to meet the guarantee. You are right that the big focus needs to be on supply, particularly as we go into more difficult economic times. We need to do more, especially in the public sector. It needs to increase by half as much again to match the levels of private sector apprenticeships. We have an event on the 27th of this month when ministerial champions from each Department responsible for developing apprenticeships within the sectors for which they are accountable will come together with others to work through how to deliver significant growth in public sector apprenticeships. Clause 21 is important in that respect, as are the opportunities for sector skills councils and employers to bring forward frameworks in an easier, more coherent way under clauses 7 to 10. Stimulating strong supply and demand are necessary, and that is why we want to legislate.

  Q99  Mr. Heppell: Lord Young said, "We will not validate something as an apprenticeship if, in the end, they are not in employment." That worried me a bit, because it almost suggested that people could go through a lot of training and then get a job a week or so before it was time for their pension. I want to be reassured. The beauty of apprenticeship for me was that people got both the theory and the practice, but it was understanding how they meshed them together that was important. For my apprenticeship, I did a year's block release at college and went to work in the holidays. To be honest, the theory was great but it was never relevant until I was actually on the job and could do as much as I liked on the hydraulics. We opened up an Anderson Boyes coal cutter, looked inside it and the pipes did not mean a thing. We had to know how to match the theoretical work with the practical work. People need to be in work when they are in an apprenticeship. I want reassurance that it will not be a case of people attending a training school before getting a job.

  Lord Young: There has to be proper workplace experience, too. There will be a contract with an employer. I was trying to distinguish it from programme-led apprenticeships where there is not necessarily a contract with an employer. It is not just a last-minute connection.

  Jim Knight: Clause 16 through to clause 20 of the Bill defines the apprenticeship agreement as a contract between the learner and the employer.



 
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