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23 Feb 2009 : Column 83

There is a need for great articulation between the diploma system, which one hopes will lead on to apprenticeships, and further progression to higher education. I have seen outstanding apprentices, and I hope that many of them will proceed to higher education, perhaps as mature undergraduate students or for continuing professional development. We must ensure that that gateway is kept open.

We need to emphasise the role of group training arrangements, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises. I participated in such arrangements myself years ago, and they are valuable for the smaller employer. We must also ensure that that national apprenticeship service actually operates as a service, rather than obstructs providers. We have heard the list of the various requirements currently set out, which are too onerous. We should also reconsider guidance services. I remain a fan of a single guidance service, from cradle to grave, as it were, because every individual has one career. We might not get that—we will need to scrutinise the Government’s new proposals both at the school end and at the adult end.

I wish to mention some specific problems. First, adequate funding for adult apprentices is needed, bearing in mind the fact that most people who will be in the work force in 2020 are already in it. Secondly, there is an interaction between the need for part-time apprenticeships to be provided and the need for provision for women. We understand that there is a problem in the case of part-time students, but we need to do something really good for those who can do a part-time apprenticeship and then develop and get a full qualification in due course. Ministers need to pick up on their responsibility and obligation to such people, particularly given the current economic conditions in which, sadly, redundancy may cut in. We cannot have people losing their undertakings and having to go back to square one.

That brings me to the elephant in the room, which is the present economic downturn. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families sometimes talks as though his aspiration were itself equivalent to achievement, which he has not yet secured. I held office as Under-Secretary in the then Department of Education when we were recovering from the last downturn. Perhaps we promised rather less in relation to participation—a subject to which I have always been committed—but perhaps we achieved a little more. All of us, on whichever side of the House we sit, can join the party and focus on real vocational skills and enhancing and developing career paths. The problem lies on the supply side. If Ministers can put into access to apprenticeships just a tithe of the effort that they have put into access to higher education in recent years, that will be critical. It will partly involve the use of the public sector, and public funds will probably be needed to support apprentices in the private sector.

We must get apprentices in and give them an attractive framework so that it is enjoyable and constructive to be an apprentice. We must give people every support to persist with their courses to the end, wherever possible at level 3. We will not be able to do that unless we can win the confidence—the buy-in, to use the jargon—of employers in all sectors and of all types and sizes. We must convince them that there is a business case for a skilled work force, both now and when the upturn eventually comes.

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Of course, I am prepared to concede Ministers’ genuine desire to broaden opportunities for all our people and give them access to high-quality provision. That provision will not come through higher education alone, and should never have been seen in that way, although sadly some commentators do see a future for young people only in those terms. We have always wanted, and are building up, the potential for a high-quality vocational route through both the apprenticeship structure and appropriate qualifications. I hope that Ministers may remember that they are building on the concerns of Members of all parties, and that work to ensure that that comes about has been going on for longer than they acknowledge. We can all make an incremental contribution to that work.

There will be life after the current generation of Ministers and their Government have passed from the scene, so I ask them to exercise a bit of humility. They must avoid hype, hubris and empty bombast. It is a matter of faith, but one worth sharing in the Chamber, that we can all make progress in this area in difficult times. However, we must work hard to ensure that the details of legislation match the aspirations that we are setting out this evening.

7.26 pm

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who managed to avoid party political attacks until right at the end of his speech.

I should like to take the House back to last November and Wakefield college’s graduation ceremony, which I attended in our city’s great cathedral. The graduands processed through the Saturday morning traffic, stopping it, and walked through the crowds of shoppers to take up their places and emerge into our city as graduates. They brought with them their parents, partners, teachers, children and friends—the people who had supported them through their years of hard work and studying, months of revision and assignments and weeks of waiting anxiously for their results. I watched them leave the cathedral and go out to eat a delicious buffet created for them by Wakefield college’s catering staff and students, who do a mean egg mayonnaise sandwich. They went out into the world with the confidence that a degree brings.

Without the hard work of their teachers and the support of the college, those people would be facing a changing job market unskilled and unprepared. Investment in higher and further education is an investment in the future of those young people and the future of Wakefield. Investing in skills in the Wakefield district is really important, because a quarter of the people who work there have no qualifications, which is the highest rate in the region. More than 39 per cent. of working-age people there have no qualifications, and just 18 per cent. of our work force have degrees. For us, the Bill is no academic debate but is vital to the future of the city and the district.

Wakefield college has to work hard to attract its students. In 2006, just 68 per cent. of school leavers in the district stayed on in full-time education, the third lowest rate in the country after Barnsley and Salford. That rate is lower than both the national average of 78 per cent. and the regional average in Yorkshire,
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which is 73 per cent., despite the Government’s many initiatives such as the education maintenance allowance, which they introduced to help students from lower-income families to stay on in education.

I tell Ministers that raising the school leaving age to 18 in six years’ time will transform the life chances of young people in Wakefield. Schools in Wakefield city have no sixth forms, so the college is the only route to further education for young people in the area. A-levels, apprenticeships and national diplomas are all offered, and a new campus opened this month at Whitwood in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). It cost £31 million to build, with a 10 per cent. contribution from the Learning and Skills Council. That campus will focus on entry-to-employment courses and vocational education in the north-east of the district, which has the greatest difficulty in attracting young people to, and retaining them in, further and higher education.

I was concerned to learn that the funding for rebuilding the college’s city centre campus has been put on hold for three months. However, unlike the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), I will not engage in shroud waving. The council has had approval in principle for the £67 million project, with £40 million due to come from the LSC and the rest from a bank loan and capital receipts. It is imperative that learners in the city have access to first-class college facilities, and the building forms part of the regeneration of what will be the new merchant quarter, which includes a new city centre train station and a new living and working area at the gateway to our city. I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) and been reassured by that meeting. The principal of Wakefield college and I met my hon. Friend a few weeks ago to impress on him the need for the new facilities in Wakefield.

It is also vital to expand the higher education opportunities in the district. That has become critical since the university of Leeds pulled out of the Bretton Hall performing arts centre in the wonderful Yorkshire sculpture park—I encourage all hon. Members to pay it a visit in the next recess. It is a fantastic place—500 acres of country park, with the finest sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth dotted among the sheep. I impress on Ministers the necessity for a speedy final decision by the LSC.

It is instructive to look behind some of the Conservative rhetoric on investment and remember the reality of Tory Government investment in education and skills. In 1996-97, earmarked Conservative Government expenditure on FE capital expenditure on building was nil. A National Audit Office report stated that college buildings were not fit places in which to learn. The Conservatives let those buildings go to rack to ruin and the Conservative Government cut FE funding by 7 per cent. in real terms in the four years up to 1997.

Mr. Boswell rose—

Mary Creagh: I give way to the man who may have been responsible.

Mr. Boswell: Not many hon. Members will know that the hon. Lady and I share a birthday, although not the same year.

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Let me take her back a little in history. When the FE sector was taken away from local authorities, for the first two or three years, the emphasis on capital investment had to be directed towards urgent health and safety. There was not much available for all the other capital investment, which we could have undertaken in due course. That is at least part of the background to the somewhat specious figures that she has produced.

Mary Creagh: As the hon. Gentleman says, we share a birthday. However, our political opinions diverge. Why was the capital budget spent on health and safety? Was it to avoid objects falling off classrooms on to young people’s heads? Were the buildings in such disrepair? If so, why did not the Conservative Government prioritise such spending more?

Let us compare the Conservative record on capital investment with that of the Government, who have so far invested £2 billion on renewing and modernising FE facilities, with another £2.3 billion promised for the next three years. It is interesting to note that the Conservative party makes political capital out of FE while we spend capital to get colleges built.

The number of people who complete an apprenticeship in Wakefield has nearly trebled in the past few years. For many young people, it is a route to a high-quality, skilled job. My friend told me about her son queuing up with many young people to get access to apprenticeships in our district. The Bill will place apprenticeships on a statutory footing. It guarantees that all suitably qualified young people will be entitled to a place by 2013. It will also ensure that young people in schools receive proper information, advice and guidance about vocational training opportunities.

I was saddened this weekend to see in my surgery a lady who told me about her daughter, who got reasonably good results at a local school, but decided not to go on to college at 16 and is now not in education, employment or training. My constituent’s family had not had much education, and she said that her daughter had now decided that she wanted to go to college, but that all the courses that she wished to take did not start till next September. Her daughter has six months to wait—a wasted year of losing out on opportunities.

Alison Seabeck: I listened to my hon. Friend’s story about the woman whose daughter is NEET. Does my hon. Friend accept that we need some clarification about how to help young people, whose formal learning passage has not taken the form that it should have—there have been gaps in it for a range of reasons—to move into apprenticeships? Perhaps we can consider that in Committee.

Mary Creagh: I look forward to debating that in Committee and I thank my hon. Friend for making the point. As a trustee of Rathbone for seven years, I saw its creative and innovative methods. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) mention its great work in Gateshead. Students who go on Rathbone’s training programme cannot be placed directly with an employer. They have to do the programme-led apprenticeships to give them the communications skills, teach them punctuality and the ability simply to get there in the morning—the life skills that they need to become proper members of any work force.

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However, what a change from the youth training schemes of the 1980s. We have almost forgotten those, and I would like to remind hon. Members of what they involved. Young people were herded into unsuitable roles and paid the grand sum of £30 for a 40-hour working week. For those whose maths is a little rusty, that is 75p an hour. Many were sacked at the end of their apprenticeship when the company had to pay them the going rate for the job—£7.80 an hour instead of 75p as fully qualified electricians, carpenters, fitters, welders and so on. They were set free into a newly flexible work market to find their own way, which was a difficult path for many young men in their late teens or early twenties to take. It was the path of constant casualisation, which exists to this day for many of them.

Mrs. Hodgson: Some unscrupulous employers gave young people one YTS after another—I know that from my brothers’ experience—always with the promise that they would be kept on at some future date, which never came. I hope that the Bill will ensure that that will never happen again.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. The Government of the time must have known about employers’ use of YTS trainees as cheap labour in the 1980s. It was a scandal. Not only Labour politicians say that. In 1998—10 years later—the academic Professor Sarah Vickerstaff wrote in the Journal of Vocational Education & Training:

We may cavil about some of the difficulties and complexities of the current architecture of FE training, but YTS was almost a dirty word in the city in which I grew up.

That is such a contrast to the apprentices whom I met recently in Wakefield. I visited TEi, a heavy engineering firm in my constituency, and met Katy Roe, who was a trainee apprentice welder. That brings us back to advice and guidance on trying to get young women into non-traditional employment. Many young women think that the only apprenticeships they can do are in child caring, other caring, teaching and so on. Hairdressing is a classic example of a job for which there are many apprenticeships. That tends to be low-paid work. Katy has now finished her apprenticeship and can look forward to a future of working to build the next generation of power stations in this country and, as a 22-year-old woman, earning herself a salary of £40,000 a year, which is way above the national average. I am delighted to congratulate her on winning Yorkshire apprentice of the year. Indeed, she is going forward to the Learning and Skills Council’s national competition, and I wish her well in that, too.

Next year, 35,000 extra apprenticeships will be created, working in both the public and the private sector. I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on training in awarding private finance initiative schools contracts. That is a great step forward.

Another thing that I would mention from the ’80s is the end of the council house building programme. Again, we have a lost generation from that period, when construction apprentices could not get good-quality
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public sector apprenticeships building social housing. Next year, 750,000 people will start apprenticeships, compared with just 75,000 in 1997.

I want now to deal with the skills needs of older people. Train to Gain, our flagship programme of training in the workplace, has so far helped more than 1 million people get on at work. Some 43 per cent. of those who took up training last year were promoted and a third got a pay rise. I visited Morrison’s supermarket and met the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers learning reps over the meat and fish counter. That experience brought home to me the power of peer education in the work force, where the people who work with each other and trust each other—they might have a chat or perhaps go out for a drink together—might say, “I’ve noticed that you’re not that confident at reading,” or, “How’s your maths?” or, “You’ve got a real talent for this. Why don’t you go further?” or, “Why don’t you be the health and safety rep, the fire rep or the first-aider?” Peer education is a non-threatening reintroduction for people who perhaps left school at 16 or had a poor school experience, or who might be lacking in confidence or have been out of the work force for a while. The Bill will give 22 million workers the right to ask for time to train, in the same way as workers are able to ask for flexible working.

We need to use that programme to set people’s creativity free. Firms need to use it to say, “We’re not just going to train someone to scan products on a till faster; we’re going to see what great ideas are there in our work force.” I ask the Minister to encourage firms to allow people to have time off for training that does not directly affect their jobs. The women whom I spoke to wanted to be able to go home and help their children do research on the internet, but they were not allowed access to internet-based skills training, because it was not directly relevant to their job as cashiers in a supermarket.

Wakefield college also has a centre of vocational excellence in enterprise management and will be making good use of the £350 million that the Government have announced for training in small and medium-sized enterprises and for improving productivity quickly. A global recession is the time to increase, not reduce, investment in skills and training. I am afraid that that is a lesson that the Conservative party has not learned from the recessions of the ’80s and ’90s. Companies that do not invest in training are 2.5 times more likely to fail than those that do.

The Government do not believe that top-quality education should be the privilege of the few, or the young. In contrast to the Tories, we are putting forward the funding that ensures that access to further education is available to everyone—real help now for students, businesses and workers. The Conservatives would cut £610 million from our universities, skills and science budget. I will give way now if any member of their Front-Bench team wishes to put the record straight, perhaps in the same way as we saw the record on funding for Sure Start centres being put straight—or perhaps slightly less wobbly—earlier. I will happily give way, but nobody is standing up to intervene, so I assume that they are happy with our calculations.

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